‘Safety’ Spurs Remote Meetings for City Management While Staff Must Work in Person

While many municipal workers balk at Mayor Eric Adams’ demand they work full-time from the office, some city boards and commissions are continuing to hold public meetings and hearings virtually — citing safety concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the city’s Board of Health voted unanimously to continue meeting virtually in the near future, with an agency lawyer saying the panel could vote to resume in-person meetings in August or September “when it feels safer, perhaps, to meet in person.” 

The meeting, held via Zoom, was streamed to the public on YouTube.

The Board of Health, an 11-member body that oversees the city’s health code, has been holding its public meetings remotely since the COVID-19 pandemic first shook the city in early 2020.

“Adoption of the declaration today will allow for the board to preserve the status quo and meet remotely until circumstances improve — transmission rate, for example,” Department of Health and Mental Hygiene general counsel Lisa Landau said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The federal Centers for Disease Control categorizes the city’s community transmission rate as level “medium.” The daily city average for new cases per 100,000 people over the previous seven days hit a high of 56.6 on May 18 and has since declined to 36 as of June 6, the latest state numbers show. 

This week, three boards and commissions — the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC, the City Planning Commission and the city’s Employees’ Retirement System — also announced that upcoming hearings or meetings would be held remotely because of the ongoing pandemic.

“In light of the continued declarations of emergency issued by the Governor and Mayor, the Mayor’s Fund has determined that the continued presence of the COVID-19 pandemic impairs the board’s ability to meet in person,” read a notice in the City Record, the official municipal newspaper.

The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City holds a remote board meeting, May 18, 2022.

Screengrab/mayorsfundnyc/YouTube

The nonprofit Mayor’s Fund, which usually meets in City Hall, is chaired by Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright with five other directors. As city employees, they are required to work in the office.

The City Planning Commission cited its interest in supporting “the City’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19” as the reason it held a hearing virtually on Wednesday — where projects discussed included a 1,300-apartment development on the waterfront in Astoria, Queens. 

The retirees’ board said it was meeting remotely on Thursday because of the “pandemic” and “for everyone’s safety.”

Adams has been a vocal promoter of getting workers back into the office since taking over City Hall on Jan. 1, arguing that it’s essential for reviving the city’s economy. “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day,” the mayor said at a press conference in February as he was coaxing private sector workers back into their offices.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio had called workers back to the office full time in September 2021, prompting pushback and warnings that needed employees would flee to more flexible private sector jobs. 

Last week, Adams chief of staff Frank Carone issued a memo reminding city workers to report to their offices on a full time basis, according to an email previously reported by PoliticoNY.

“While hybrid schedules have become more common in the private sector, the Mayor firmly believes that the city needs its workers to report to work every day in person,” reads the email from Carone. “To that end, all City employees should be advised that, absent a reasonable accommodation, you are required to report to work in person for every scheduled workday and hybrid schedules of any kind are not permitted.”

City Hall spokesperson Fabien Levy said the administration draws a distinction between virtual meetings from the office and employees working from home.

“We are…committed to making government work more effectively to deliver for New Yorkers and conducting meetings virtually or in a hybrid format from offices is sometimes a more efficient way to meet and get stuff done,” he said.

Levy pointed to a provision in the recently amended state Open Meetings Law that he said requires public entities to cite the pandemic in order to hold meetings or hearings virtually.

Jake Forken, an Excelsior Service fellow at the state Committee on Open Government, said such a citation isn’t required.

City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson Patrick Gallahue noted that the Board of Health is independent and composed largely of non-city employees, who serve unpaid to oversee the city’s health code. 

He noted that the commissioner of the health department, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, who chairs the board, reports to work in the office every day.

‘Folks Are Really Upset’

In the meantime, private businesses in the city have already been offering their employees greater flexibility in conducting meetings remotely or working from home, according to Partnership for New York City President Kathryn Wylde.

She said the changes aren’t just for reasons of health and convenience, but also worker retention and public safety concerns.

“The private sector has largely moved beyond ‘pandemic mandates’ to treating COVID-19 as endemic, meaning it’s like the flu and not driving policy,” she said.

Wylde noted that a shift to hybrid work would be more difficult in the public sector, where many jobs can’t be conducted remotely and where such benefits would need to be negotiated into union contracts.

But some municipal workers disagree.

Jeremiah Cedeño, a co-founder of the social advocacy group City Workers for Justice, said the pandemic showed that the city could conduct business perfectly well even when significant portions of its workforce remained at home.

On the flexibility being offered to members of city boards and commissions to meet remotely, he said, “It’s not being afforded to everybody — and folks are really upset.”

“It’s why the attrition will continue to increase,” said Cedeño, who recently left his job as a housing coordinator at the city’s Human Resources Administration for a higher-paying, more flexible gig at the nonprofit Vibrant Emotional Health.  

In December, Henry Garrido, president of the city’s largest public employees’ union, DC37, put out a statement demanding that the outgoing administration of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio implement a telework policy.

“Our members have proven they can do their jobs from home,” Garrido said at the time. “They cannot continue to be used as pawns in a political game.”

A spokesperson for the union told THE CITY it expects telework to be among the top bargaining priorities of members when the results of an ongoing survey are returned.

Last month, Gothamist reported that the number of full-time city workers had dropped by 6% from pre-pandemic days — to 282,000 — and Cedeño said his group is hearing anecdotal reports of high attrition rates from the municipal workforce.

The New York Post recently reported that staff headcount at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development — which builds and preserves the city’s affordable housing stock — is 24% below what’s budgeted. 

“Folks are gonna keep leaving if folks don’t feel this is a place for them,” said Cedeño.

‘Extraordinary Circumstances’

On April 9, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law that requires public entities to meet in person — at a place where members of the public can also attend — while allowing for officials to participate remotely in the event of “extraordinary circumstances.” 

In those cases, members of the public would also be able to participate remotely.

The revision to the state’s Open Meetings Law leaves it to the local entities to define “extraordinary circumstances,” but offers the examples of disability, illness and caregiving responsibilities.

The law goes into effect on Thursday — but don’t expect it to truly take effect anytime soon.

The in-person requirements can be waived if there’s a state of emergency that directly impacts the ability to hold in-person meetings. Hochul’s current state of emergency declaration, signed May 15, is slated to sunset June 14, but she is expected to renew it as she has each month since taking office last year.

The latest state emergency declaration cited the high transmission rates of the Omicron variant and a hospitalization rate exceeding 100 new admissions statewide per day. The city’s current COVID-19 state of emergency is set to expire on Friday and is also expected to be renewed by Mayor Eric Adams.

Last week, the City Council passed a measure that would allow for its hearings and meetings to continue to accommodate participation via video conference — including voting — by Council members experiencing “extraordinary circumstances.”

The Council’s speaker was given the duty of crafting the guidelines governing those circumstances.

Minority leader Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island), told THE CITY that while there’s some value in holding virtual hearings, he was among six Council members to vote against the resolution because he believes votes should be conducted solely in person.

“There’s an expectation that a legislative body convenes, is present to hear arguments for and against, and records their vote where they can have direct interaction with the public,” said Borelli. “Being yelled at, shouted out — whether it be from the gallery or a penned off area on Broadway — is part of the process.”

He said that urgency isn’t as great for boards and commissions which aren’t as directly accountable to members of the public — especially those like the Mayor’s Fund that consist of unpaid volunteers.

“That said, if there’s any drop off in functionality, these groups should come back in person,” he added.

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