Stories

(Some) City workers weather the storm

Government employees report to duty in besieged lower Manhattan

As Hurricane Sandy closed in on New York City, city workers ostensibly arrived at their desks Monday morning. The hard line from the Mayor’s office is that city workers were to report to work.

“Let me be clear, city government is open,” Mayor Bloomberg said in an 11:30 a.m. press conference on Monday. Bloomberg emphasized the importance of city government in emergency situations.

“Our city workers know, we’re here to help the public,” he said. “And if the public needs help, we’re going to be here.”

Bloomberg acknowledged that some employees might not be able to make it to work — after all, subways, buses and ferries have all been suspended. And for those that made it in, getting home probably wouldn’t be easy. He said he left it up to individual city commissioners to determine whether or not to allow non-emergency employees to go home early.

Subway maintenance workers turn a workroom bench into an impromptu cot for their overnight shift at the Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall subway station. Photo: Nathaniel Herz

In reality, emergency workers aside, city employees weren’t exactly arriving at work in droves.

“I’m the only one on my floor,” said a Department of Citywide Administrative Services employee outside of the Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street in Manhattan.

A Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson said by phone that Parks employees were expected to come in, but those who couldn’t were working from home.

“It’s really busy and I’m the only one in, so I have to go,” the spokesperson said hurriedly before ending the call.

The New York World observed a few scattered workers going in and out of 1 Centre Street Monday morning, and even fewer people going in and out of City Hall. Generally, there appeared to be more soggy map-toting tourists around than there were people dressed for work.

Nearby, New York City Transit employee Don Alcindor was working as part of an emergency response team based in an employees-only room inside the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall 4/5/6 subway stop.

“We get called during emergencies all the time,” Alcindor said of he and his co-workers. “We come to work and do whatever we have to when we’re called.”

Alcindor said a crew would be going out later to inspect tracks on the Brooklyn Bridge. He had been at work since 3 p.m. on Sunday and pointed to the bench where he’d slept in the subway station work room. Alcindor had driven in from New Jersey, while some of his co-workers had come from as far away as Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

“We have a full crew and then some on hand today,” Alcindor said of his 15 or so people working with him.

Kevin Schmitt, an NYPD lieutenant working at police headquarters at One Police Plaza, said he was prepared to stick the storm out.

“I packed a bag,” he said. “If I have to stay, I have to stay.”

Schmitt said the expectation in the police department was that officers make every reasonable effort to come to work. “We can’t all just say ‘Oh, I can’t make it today,’” Schmitt said.

Department of Education employees that the New York World spoke with reported making it to their offices via cabs and car services. Others walked.

In a memo to DOE employees sent Sunday night, Chancellor Dennis Walcott instructed administrative staff to come to work. “In accordance with city policy, city government is open,” Walcott wrote, “and all employees who work in central and field offices are expected to try to overcome transportation difficulties caused by the storm and report to work.”

Working from home was not listed as an option in Walcott’s email, and employees unable to get to their offices were instructed to use their vacation time. A notable exception was school-based staff. They were not expected to report, since public schools were closed Monday.

Employees of Council Member Margaret Chin’s had particularly compelling reasons for staying out of the office. Though Chin’s district office is located officially in Zone B in Manhattan, it’s just a 3-minute walk from Zone A, the mandatory evacuation zone. Chin’s staff was working from home Monday.

Kelly Magee, Chin’s Communications Director, told the New York World in an email that her boss had “decided to err on the side of caution.” Magee noted that Chin’s full staff was “all hands on deck” Sunday from noon to 8 p.m., knocking on doors in public housing in Zone A, telling residents to leave their apartments.

Magee, for her part, also lives in Zone A and had to evacuate as well.