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New York Edges Closer to Prepandemic Life, as City Workers Return

On Monday, as New York City students fully return to public schools, a less heralded reopening will also take place: The city’s entire municipal labor force, the largest in the nation, will return to the workplace.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered the city’s more than 300,000 employees to report to work five days a week, with no general hybrid or remote option. The move will be closely watched in cities around the nation, as the mayor navigates a thicket of safety procedures.

Office workers will have to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, and masks will be required in most indoor communal settings. Social distancing will not be required, except where workers are interacting with the public.

The mayor’s push to return city employees has been met with significant resistance, from union officials to the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, who said on Friday that his office would not abide by the mayor’s directive.

But Mr. de Blasio has been determined to restore the city to some semblance of its prepandemic existence, and he believes that returning to work will greatly help efforts to revive the city’s economy.

Much of the city’s municipal work force has already returned to work in some measure; roughly 80,000 city workers out of a total work force of more than 300,000 began reporting to the office in May on a hybrid schedule. The rest, many of them uniformed workers and teachers, have already returned full time, with some — most notably teachers and health care workers — required to be vaccinated with no testing opt-out.

At least 65 percent of city workers have received at least one dose of a vaccine, which is slightly lower than the citywide average.

“We know how to make workplaces safe, and public servants can deliver more for New Yorkers when they’re working together,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for the mayor.

But in requiring employees to return to work five days a week as the weather turns cooler and the Delta variant circulates, Mr. de Blasio’s plan is nonetheless sparking significant unrest among workers in New York City, where the virus has claimed nearly 34,000 lives.

A group of city employees is planning to march from City Hall to Washington Square Park on Sunday to demand the city delay a full return to the office until January, develop a robust telework policy and institute a remote option for students.

Henry Garrido, executive director of the city’s largest public union, District Council 37, said he has repeatedly asked the mayor to push back the return-to-work date, but has yet to get a response. If the city moves ahead, his union will consider its legal options, he said.

New York is not the first city to mandate workers to return to the office full-time. The City of Houston, which has 22,000 office workers, brought them back full time over the summer, according to Mary Benton, a spokeswoman for the city. Chicago’s 5,500 office workers returned to the office five days a week in late spring, with some teleworking exceptions.

New York State workers were scheduled to return full time to the office earlier this week, but Gov. Kathy Hochul has pushed that back to Oct. 12; the state’s roughly 130,000 workers will be required to be vaccinated or tested weekly.

Mr. Garrido said he is concerned about workers’ ability to maintain social distancing, and he does not understand the need to bring people back to the office who are performing well while working from home.

“To me, this is crazy,” Mr. Garrido said in an interview. “Because at this point, there’s a new reality.”

Harry Nespoli, chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella organization of unions that includes uniformed personnel, said his organization met with city officials last Wednesday and warned them that if the mayor imposed a more robust vaccine mandate that did not include a testing option, it would take legal action.

Scientific studies show that the vaccination has prevented serious illness and death, but Mr. Nespoli said he was just voicing the concerns of his members.

“There’s members in the union that don’t want to chance the vaccine,” he said. “Should their voices be silenced? No.”

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The New York Times interviewed roughly a dozen city employees, and all but one disapproved of the mayor’s plan. Many worried about working in cramped, open work spaces with unvaccinated colleagues; others wondered how they would balance their child-care responsibilities, should their children have to quarantine following an in-school exposure.

Several workers interviewed, who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said that they or their colleagues would be likely to start looking for other jobs with more flexible work-from-home policies.

“It’s just disappointing that the city couldn’t have made a more nuanced and flexible plan for the workers who have been able to work productively from home for over a year, knowing that this is not actually necessary for us to get our work done,” said Kjirsten Alexander, a landscape architect at New York City’s Parks Department who is seven months pregnant and has a young child at home.

“Up until this point the city has been pretty cautious and fair,” she said. “We were not asked to take unnecessary risks for the sake of appearances or for an antiquated understanding of the way we need to perform our jobs.”

Mr. Stringer, the city comptroller, expressed similar concerns about the policy, and said on Twitter that his office would push back its full return for at least another month.

“We will be delaying a fuller return to the workplace until at least Oct. 12, to give us more time to assess the situation on the ground and build out a program for hybrid work,” Mr. Stringer wrote. “Mr. Mayor, this is not the time for a ‘my way or the highway’ approach.”

Nevertheless, Mr. de Blasio’s plan seems reasonable to some epidemiologists, who note that New York City’s coronavirus rate is low compared with other parts of the country, and at some point, life will in fact have to return to some level of normalcy.

“One thing that I say to folks is, ‘If not now, when?’” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “What are we waiting for? Last fall, we could all say we have to hold off and not do things and wait until the cavalry arrives, and the cavalry is the vaccines.”

Now, he argued that the risk to the vaccinated is low.

“At this point, a vaccinated person is at much lower risk of having a significant health complication from this virus than a typical person is in a typical flu season,” Dr. Jha said.

But Dr. Jha also added, “I would hope people use this as an opportunity to ask some hard questions about the nature of work and what kind of work needs to be done in person.”

If there is dissension among Mr. de Blasio’s employees, there is also support from New York City’s business leaders. For New York City to flourish, they argue, its office districts must again be vibrant.

Sam Spokony, a spokesman for the Real Estate Board of New York, said the organization of major New York City landlords was “supportive of the mayor’s decision.”

Elizabeth Lusskin, the president of the Long Island City Partnership — whose board features representatives from several major real estate companies — said it is important for the city to “lead by example,” and said that office occupancy feeds an entire ecosystem, from restaurants to cleaners to florists.

Nevertheless, in a city traumatized by the pandemic, and with the Delta variant still circulating, substantial worry persists.

At the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is covered by the mayor’s return-to-work policies, Daniel Roque-Coplin, 25, is anxious about inadvertently exposing his family to the virus.

He is immunized, but his mother is immunocompromised and he has relatives who are too young to be vaccinated.

Citing the Delta variant, he said he did not think “that the rush to return to work” was necessarily a smart move. “I don’t think it’s one that aligns with the interests of public health,” he said.

Ricardo Hinkle, a D.C. 37 chapter president for the Parks Department, said in an interview that he has been inundated with concerns from his members. He understands why. His 89-year-old father, who was vaccinated earlier this year, was hospitalized this week in Texas with complications from the coronavirus.

Mr. Hinkle has been reporting to the office once a week.

“To go from one day a week to five days a week, it’s a symbolic thing more than it is based on health and safety and metrics,” he said.

Many private sector firms have delayed a return to the office in response to the more contagious Delta variant, and have promised staff they will only report to the office a few days a week upon their return. In August, a Partnership for New York City survey found that 70 percent of major Manhattan employers were adopting a “hybrid” office schedule.

Kathryn Wylde, who leads the Partnership for New York City, said many big businesses were offering hybrid schedules only because they have little choice if they want to retain workers.

She added: “It’s not because they think it’s a better way to run the store, believe me.”

Jeffery C. Mays contributed reporting.

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