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On May 3, 80,000 city workers will return to their cubicles in office buildings across New York City for the first time since last March. Mayor Bill de Blasio has launch the reopening of the municipal office as a major step in the recovery of the New York pandemic, saying, “We need our city employees who work in offices to come back because we need to do more work and work better to serve the people of the city.” But union leaders and city workers point to poor ventilation and a lack of space to spread out in city buildings. Less than two weeks before the municipal workers return, some organizations have yet to detail office protocols or share new staggered schedules with their workers. And on top of all that, there is an increase in cases of COVID-19 variants to fight. We spoke with six city employees about getting back to work during a pandemic.
Working remotely has worked very well for me and my team. We don’t really need to be in the office because we don’t deal with the public. And any report we generate can be submitted electronically. Going to the office really doesn’t make sense. For meetings, our conference rooms are small. There is no social distancing. And then, if we have virtual meetings at our office, it doesn’t work because we share our word with others and they can overhear our conversations, which are supposed to be confidential. This has not been resolved.
If I am sitting at my desk working, I am practically in a closed box because there are no open windows; they are sealed. Our seating arrangement is like being in school. I sit at the reception. There is another guy three feet behind me, another three feet behind him, another person three feet behind me, then the supervisors. If social distancing requires six feet, then my entire unit can’t come to work, or we have to sit at other people’s desks.
I have been in this building since March 2019, and before the pandemic nobody had changed the filters on the water cooler, so regarding changing the air filters I don’t know. And then the elevators. Coming to work in the morning and coming home at night, and even sometimes at lunch, these elevators are packed like a can of sardines.
For me, at the moment, the logistics are not thought out. It’s just a garden variety decision: everyone, get back to work. We are not supposed to eat at our desks. What to do about lunch on a rainy day was not covered. The men’s room can accommodate at least five people at a time, now you are only supposed to have two people at a time. The elevators now only have to hold three people – we only have access to five elevators – we have about 2,000 people in the top five floors. My personal feeling is that when I go back I just want to go back to work. I don’t want to stand in line for an hour to enter the building. I just want to be able to work unhindered. I don’t know how it will be possible with all these restrictions.
I sit in a cabin. My colleagues and I can see each other. It’s not a six-foot separation. It’s for about 200 or 300 people for the same area. We don’t know what the plans really are. I haven’t seen an email putting all the details on what is going to be the protocol.
You cannot be in a workplace and not talk to your neighbors and be with a mask all day. Some windows can be opened, but we have huge windows and in order to be able to open them someone from the building has to come. It worried me: we won’t have traffic as long as we’re all in the same space for seven hours.
The city wants to pretend that everything is back to normal, but it is not. A lot of people are still afraid. They don’t want to get on the metro. I have not taken a train since March 12, 2020. I will ask for a parking space so that I can drive to my office. I mean, there are too many things and too many unanswered questions. We have seen our neighbors die. We have seen our families die. We have seen so many people die. It is not something that people can escape so easily.
My grandson is 100% distant because the times I sent him to school two of the other students tested positive for the coronavirus and one of the staff. I could take time off because I’m not going to send him to school if he’s not safe. I am fully vaccinated, so is my husband. But my grandson, he can’t get the vaccine. If I happen to catch the virus, I could pass it on to him.
I’ve been working in my apartment all this time and just want to see some familiar faces again. So I can’t wait to be there. Have some semblance of normalcy. I just say “hello” to them.
We sort of has the plan of how it will work where there will be 25 percent occupancy in the building. The issue will likely be ventilation, slip and slip out of the building. We also have to answer questions to enter the building. And there is also an occupancy limit for the elevators. I am fairly convinced that they will be successful. The best way to say it is to wait and see, and once that happens, we’ll finally find out. Overall, the union has been really successful in getting us vaccinated before we are supposed to come back. Local 1407, they were good with that, so right before I get home, I’ll be fully vaccinated.
We are in a building that is over 120 years old so the HVAC system is probably not what they are in newer buildings. It’s a very large building with a lot of other tenants, so we’re mixed up with them, we don’t necessarily know what the protocols are for these other companies. Another concern is that the technology in the office environment is somewhat lacking. I don’t have a camera on my desktop computer, how will I participate in Zoom calls? What if I don’t have a microphone? What I don’t do.
I think one of the main reasons that it’s useful for people to be in the office is to be able to collaborate and work side by side closely and have in-person meetings. But it looks like we won’t be allowed to do that, which sort of defeats the purpose of coming to work. Usually, I’m not really concerned about my safety, I’m vaccinated, but I just think that for a lot of us, we don’t really see the point right now and get frustrated.
I’m fine with a little more discomfort and a sort of awkwardness and inadequacy of working from home if I knew it would make everyone safer in the long run. I think there is definitely an opportunity here to reinvent what work is like. A hybrid situation where we could sort of switch over when we need to and be able to work from home most of the time. I think talking to my colleagues is probably the best option right now. For example, 75% of work from home and 25% in the office would be ideal.
If I had to go to the office tomorrow, I would be sitting at my desk doing the same thing I would at my kitchen table, probably not interacting with anyone. So even though the risk of contracting COVID may be very low, it is still a risk and it seems completely unnecessary.
My office, I call it the central hub because it is next to the desks of two managers and everyone else in my cabin. In my section there are at least six or seven people working there, including me. So normally there is a lot of traffic in both directions. So everyone who sits behind me has to get up to go to the printer, to the bathroom, to go to lunch, to come in the morning. There is a lot of traffic on my way. So this interaction will now be minimized. When people walk past my office, do we still say “hello”? Or are we just waving? Because there is fear that talking could spread COVID, or something like that. Those conversations about water coolers are gone. Go to the pantry to make coffee or tea, let’s go. Everything is now bring your own stuff.
I bought an electric bike. So the plan right now is to cycle from my home to work. I did this twice when I had to collect the equipment I needed to work. It wasn’t too bad, it was like an hour and 15 minutes, so it was a bit longer than the train.
If I look at how I worked last year, I am so in a controlled environment. It’s like leaving your parents’ house: they pay the bills, they feed you, do the laundry, but eventually you have to grow up. But in this case, it’s not growing up, it’s, do I want to risk my life with COVID?
I miss friendships and coworkers like seeing them face to face versus on a Zoom call or talking on the phone. You have certain friendships at work, you know you’re not best friends, but you have that connection. This link is not defined during a phone conversation or virtual thing. It is this physical connection with another human being that is lacking throughout this pandemic.
I am asthmatic. I asked, “Can we just wear the face shield, the one that looks like Darth Vader?” and they were like, “No, that must be that and the face mask.” So I was like, okay, I have to make some decisions to see what I’m going to do personally because I don’t think I can wear this for seven hours straight so I can breathe normally. Because at the end of the day, your health is wealth.
I have to decide that I’m still going to work for New York City. I am very grateful that as a municipal worker we have the opportunity to make reasonable accommodations regarding our health. But I can’t do this forever.
* Curbed changed the names of these workers to protect their identities.