covid-19

Speaking With City Workers Who’ve Been Forced Back to the Office

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Getty Images

The return to in-office work was rocky for New York City’s municipal employees from the start: Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered them back to their desks full-time in September at the peak of Delta infections. City workers protested, and a wave of resignations followed. In spite of repeated calls for remote work, de Blasio hasn’t budged — even as Omicron began to sweep through New York in December. In several city departments, employees say they’ve been required to go into work amid ongoing office outbreaks. “The attitude is, Wait for Eric Adams and pray to God you don’t kill your family members in the meantime,” said one city employee who asked to remain anonymous. On Christmas Eve, New York spoke with four others — all agency attorneys for the city — about the past week and a half of chaos. (Their names have been changed so that they could speak openly.)

Ferris: Wednesday the 15th, we started to hear through the grapevine that people were testing positive. I’d told Dana and another colleague, “Oh, I’m going to go get tested during lunch — I’m not feeling great, and I’m nervous.” I went to a mobile unit, and everyone around me in line was also a city employee. A lot had already been sent home. I was freaked out, like, Fuck, everyone has it. I ended up feeling so sick that I called out Thursday.

Frank: Going home from work a couple days earlier, there was a gigantic line outside City MD, around the block. I was like, Oh, that’s not a great sign. Thursday morning, a colleague messaged me and said, “Can you give me a call? I need to tell you something.” They had tested positive and were very apologetic. I was maybe, possibly exposed. That day, several different people told me they’d tested positive, and they were not all at the same events or in the same spaces.

Ferris: I got the same text messages from colleagues Thursday morning. Later, I got an email from HR that said, You’ve come into contact with someone with COVID. It didn’t even say you should get tested. It’s like, Get tested if you want.

David: The feeling in the office was just resigned. It’s been made very clear to us that unless there’s some new apocalypse variant, we’re not going to get to work from home. The morning of the 14th, I’d woken up with a headache and a cough, so I was out sick. Getting tested was like a full-day affair. My rapid test came back negative, so I was back at work Thursday morning. No matter how dangerous this is for all of us, we’re going to be here unless there are actual positive tests.

Frank: A superviser heard that people were testing positive. She was like, “Oh. Oh, no.” So she went down to HR, and they sent us all home: Work from home Friday, and we’ll let you know what’s going to happen.

It wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to get tested. We have a 20-page guidance document — anyone will tell you it’s too much information and it’s very confusing. I’m a lawyer, and I read through it, and I still couldn’t understand what exactly we’re supposed to do.

Ferris: I have to say, I was optimistic when I heard we could telework on Friday: Okay, great, it sounds like there’s going to be a telework plan, maybe for the New Year. But then we got an email over the weekend saying that we were expected to report to the office Monday morning. And I was like, Fuck this. I’m quitting.

Frank: We were sent home Friday so the office could be deep-cleaned, as though touch contact were a thing, even though we’ve known for a year that’s not how you get COVID. And so then we were sent back into the office because it’s clean. Which is ignoring how the virus actually is transmitted.

Dana: Our office is set up as a bullpen — we don’t have our own offices. The windows on our floor can’t be opened.

Frank: They were sealed shut a little before COVID. I was happy, because it had been freezing cold. But now you literally cannot open them.

Dana: I had an important medical appointment Tuesday the 21st. On Sunday night, when I heard we were supposed to go back to the office on Monday, I wrote to the HR director, the general counsel, and the deputy commissioner. I was like, “I don’t want to get COVID and not be able to go to my appointment. Can I work remotely for this one day and not risk it”? And they responded later Sunday evening saying no. It doesn’t fall within the teleworking policy. I was like, All right, I’m just not going to show up, then.

Frank: David and I sit right across from each other in the same low-walled cubicle. We actually asked if one of us could move. As much as I like basically living with David, it didn’t seem very safe, and there are all these open desks. And they said no! Because there may be someone sitting at those desks in the future. It didn’t really make sense, and it felt really petty, just really bizarre.

Also, a lot of supervisors have these cubicle offices that have doors and higher walls but no ceilings. When they’re within those, they all take their masks off all the time.

David: They’re not supposed to do that!

Frank: So they all break that rule all the time. When you knock, they say, “Hold on,” and when you open the door, they’re putting their mask on. And, like, it doesn’t make any sense from a virology perspective. It’s a problem that we’re just ignoring.

Ferris: Supervisors tend to informally be allowed to telework, while we’re not allowed to. And that’s been really frustrating.

Dana: Two days this week, none of our supervisors were there. So what was the purpose of our being there?

Ferris: I reported to our union that this was happening, but our union doesn’t care.

Frank: I actually wanted to know whether we could fire our union. I checked all the rules, and it’s not really doable.

A lot of people have left because of this return to the office. Two people a week, I would say, over the past several months.

Dana: There were 40 of us at one point, and we dropped all the way to 17. As soon as I get an offer, I’m leaving. It’s just a matter of how much notice I’m going to give.

David: Really, this past week has been what has changed my mind. As much as I enjoy doing this work, I don’t want to be an employee of the city anymore. It’s demoralizing every day, and it’s frustrating every day.

One of the things that has felt like the biggest slap in the face is the mayor saying to the press,, point-blank, that one of the reasons he wanted city workers back was to restart the economy.

Ferris: When I heard that, I was like, Okay, profit over people, cool cool. We care about businesses more than the workforce. Great.

For me, the slap in the face is that we’re not trusted to even have a telework option. If you don’t trust us to work at home, why would you trust us to bring cases on your behalf?

David: The other thing is, all through the pandemic, we’d been told how amazingly city workers had been doing, and how efficiently the city had been running while we were remote. Then, all of a sudden, when the mayor wants us back in the office, he’s talking about how there really has been a loss of productivity. It’s the disingenuousness that has been hard for me to wrestle with.

Ferris: Monday the 20th, when we all returned to the office, I was still sick. I had lost my voice completely and everyone’s like, You shouldn’t be here. And I’m like, I tested negative — I would love to do this work from home, but I’m not allowed to. I was talking to a supervisor who had COVID, who was working virtually, and she said, “You sound worse than I do.”

Frank: The day before yesterday, Ferris comes back from Duane Reade with a bag, saying, “They restocked the at-home tests” — so I grabbed my coat and was spreading the word and everybody ran out and bought a bunch. It just felt totally crazy.

Ferris: I felt so sick that I tested myself during my lunch at my desk and just sat there and waited for the results. I was like, Okay, guys, we’ll see if I gave you all COVID.

Frank: I live with someone from overseas, and he was flying home on the 21st. He had to get a negative test before he flew. He hasn’t seen his family in four years. It was really important that he test negative. I was like, I’m sorry. I have to go to the office. It made his life very stressful. Now, I’m visiting my elderly family members. I was really worried about exposing them. It’s worrying my family. It’s worrying my friends.

Ferris: Monday, when we came back after the deep-cleaning, our deputy commissioner comes over to my team. She says, “You cannot talk in person.” And then she sends an email: “Hi team, I hope everyone is well. As you return to the office after the cleaning on Friday, let’s go back to the practice of meeting by telephone or virtually on Teams even if we are in the office. Also, let’s try not congregating in person at our desks or in the pantry or elsewhere in the office. Just being cautious. Thanks everyone, and stay safe.” If we can’t even talk to one another, why are we here?

My team and I were discussing a case a few days later. We were all six feet apart. And she came up to us and was like, “What’s wrong with this picture?” We got chastised for it. I was livid.

Dana: When she asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” I responded, “Well, we’re in the office. That’s what’s wrong with this picture.” She just kind of took that on the cheek.

David: She didn’t yell, but it was clear we were being reprimanded for not following this edict. One of the reasons they said they wanted us back in the office was to have this more collaborative feel. And you’re telling me that I can’t have this conversation about work? So now we’re just being potential vectors for a disease for no reason. Why am I in the upside-down? Why am I in Bizarro World, and when do I get to leave?

City Workers Who’ve Been Forced Back to the Office Speak