From left to right: Jennifer Romain-Hinds, Sharon Bascom, and Quinsey Simpson. | Photos courtesy of Cathy Figueroa, the United Federation of Teachers, and Britton Allston.
NEW YORK — Sharon Bascom was preparing to retire, after years of bouncing around New York City’s public schools, when she finally landed a permanent teaching position in Brooklyn last December. She felt a renewed connection with her kindergarten students and began looking forward to more time on the job.
Then, on April 6, just days after she called her younger sister screaming in pain, Bascom died alone in a hospital room in Queens.
A few days later, Traci Belton, a supervisor at the city’s child protective services agency, became so worried about the risks she faced by going into work that she took to Facebook to share her fears with colleagues. One week later she was dead.
In late March, Quinsey Simpson called in sick from his job as a correction officer on Rikers Island for the second time in 18 years. It would be his last: Simpson was admitted to the hospital on March 25, one week after his 62nd birthday, and died two days later.
These New Yorkers are part of an unenviable club: At least 298 frontline municipal employees who died from the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the city for the better part of the year, according to City Hall. Over the past nine months, POLITICO has sought to identify these employees through information from several city agencies, news reports, obituaries and online tributes, as well as labor unions, which have typically included more names in their tallies than the city is including in its own count. City Hall has declined to release the names of the deceased, citing privacy concerns.
These workers risked their own lives to provide for others, at times without adequate protective gear and in some cases doing tasks their friends, relatives and union leaders believe they could have accomplished at home.
They weren’t doctors and nurses, whom New Yorkers dutifully cheered each night during the dark days of spring. They took care of public housing developments, ordered medical supplies, dispatched 911 calls, transported patients to area hospitals and helped people apply for financial assistance. They ranged in age from 29 to 91.
And they were predominantly Black and Latino — a sharp racial disparity that mirrors the national trend of the pandemic.
They were just 298 people out of a workforce of some 350,000, but they died in active service of New York City — often without fanfare, their lives memorialized on Zoom calls or Facebook posts instead of the traditional death rituals that the pandemic curtailed.
“This year has tested our resolve,” said Henry Garrido, president of the city’s largest municipal employees union, District Council 37, whose members are predominantly low-wage Black and Latino workers. “A lot of the professional technical titles were able to work from home from a remote location. But for the lowest-paid city workers that were basically doing a lot of manual labor, food service work, hospitals workers that were cleaning — their jobs required their presence. And ones that were designated as frontline workers — they had no choice.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has routinely blamed the Trump administration for failing to protect frontline workers, and said in a prepared statement, “Our hearts break for the families of every public servant we’ve lost this year. As we inch closer to putting 2020 behind us and welcoming in the new year, all New Yorkers should take a moment to thank those who kept the city running during our darkest moments and remember those we’ve lost.”
Now, with the city in the throes of a second wave of the virus and a vaccine becoming more available, questions of who qualifies as an essential worker will have to be addressed anew. At the same time, de Blasio and several candidates seeking to replace him next year have expressed a commitment to reevaluate the administration’s remote work policy.
On March 1, New York City confirmed its first case of Covid-19, setting in motion a frenzied response from multiple city, state and federal agencies, which at times released contradictory directives. In the ensuing two weeks, de Blasio wrestled with how to handle the city’s public school system, which educates 1.1 million students. By March 15 he reluctantly announced a system-wide closure beginning the following day, but school staff continued to show up that week to prepare for the shift to remote learning.
It was during those days that workers were put in heightened danger of contracting the virus, two prominent union leaders said in recent interviews.
“We were one of the last school systems to close down,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. “At the same time, we had more virus in our city, and in our school system, than anywhere else.”
“We could have faced reality a lot sooner,” added Gregory Floyd, president of the Teamsters Local 237, which represents school safety agents.
To date, 79 employees from the Department of Education — the largest city agency — have died from Covid-19, the most fatalities any municipal department has endured, according to a tally released by City Hall. POLITICO calculated 88 deaths at the department, based on additional data from unions representing school workers.
Another 13 school safety agents and one crossing guard employed by the NYPD died from the virus, according to the police force.
Of the 83 school workers whose race POLITICO identified through publicly-available information, 62 were Black or Latino — a rate in keeping with a city workforce that is 62 percent nonwhite, according to the most recent available data.
The trend echoes a national chasm that the coronavirus has laid bare: Across the country, Black and Latino residents have been more vulnerable to the death grip of the pandemic.
“Obviously there is a disparity, and we have conversations about this all the time. Why? What could be contributing factors to it? And we don’t know,” Virginia Nunez, a teacher at P.S. 123 in Queens, said in a recent interview about the death of her friend and former paraprofessional Jennifer Romain-Hinds.
All full-time city workers have health insurance, Nunez pointed out.
“But yet the statistics show you that it was mostly minority individuals working in city agencies that were affected by Covid and died from it,” she said. “So is it that we maybe put off going to the doctor? Maybe. Could it be our diet? I have no idea. But it happens.”
Health care experts have begun piecing together why certain populations are more susceptible to the disease; early studies show physical environment, poor working conditions and lack of income and education have all contributed to higher Covid death rates.
Romain-Hinds, who was Black, received a kidney transplant years ago and had begun dieting to lose weight with the hope of getting pregnant, Nunez said. She had recently gotten married, and at 41 years old was raising two teenage girls she adopted from Haiti after their parents died in an earthquake.
Conscious of her own health problems, Romain-Hinds wore a mask during her final days in the school building even though her colleagues did not — city, state and federal guidance had yet to call for it, Nunez pointed out. She said she was not sure where Romain-Hinds contracted the virus, and expressed sympathy toward city officials over the difficult decision to close schools.
In a nearby section of Queens, Sharolyn Vieira had become worried about her 61-year-old sister. Sharon Bascom reported to her Brooklyn school for several days after it was shut to students, and continued working from home after she fell ill. Bascom had diabetes and her younger sister wanted her to rest at home, in their shared house, where they’d long ago removed a portion of the wall dividing their apartments.
Days after Vieira brought her sister to New York Presbyterian hospital in Queens, Bascom was in audible distress. “I rang the phone and she just picked up screaming. She was screaming, ‘I’m in so much pain, I’m in so much pain. I’m going to die here,’” Vieira recalled in the spring. A cousin called to pray with “Sister Kim,” as she was known to fellow parishioners at the Ozone Park Church of the Nazarene.
A few nights later hospital officials called with the news that Bascom had died. They promised she would get to see her sister a final time on a video call, but that never happened, she said.
“So my last visual of my sister is the day that I took her to the hospital,” Vieira said. “It hurts because I kind of blame myself — maybe I should have paid attention more.”
Bascom, who did not have children of her own, devoted her spare time to helping fellow parishioners pay for school supplies and complete their homework, her cousin Errol Vieira, the church’s pastor, said in a recent interview. “These kids as they grew up, they were going to get a gift from Sister Kim even if they didn’t get [one] from anybody else,” he said.
A spokesperson from the Department of Education said the agency deep-cleaned every building each day in advance of in-person staff training sessions in March. Teachers who were sick were advised to stay home.
For Traci Belton, a supervisor at the Administration for Children’s Services, working conditions had become unnerving.
“You all know how ACS [has] no regard at all for the staff period, putting us all in jeopardy,” she wrote in a Facebook post in early April. Several days later she too had died from the virus.
“Traci was scared out of her wits to have to go to work because of her personal health challenges,” a friend and colleague, who requested anonymity to speak about her workplace, said in a subsequent interview.
Communication Workers of America Local 1180, which represents some ACS employees, filed a grievance with the city on Dec. 4 alleging its members were given just one six-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, three surgical masks and one pair of surgical gloves to last three months.
One agency office lacked adequate ventilation and daily cleaning; at a different site, staff did not adhere to social distancing regulations, the union said.
“They tell us that if you come up with a safety plan, it has to be concrete and it has to mitigate the safety factors that are making the child unsafe. Using that metric, I don’t think the city actually had a concrete safety plan for us,” Robert Jones, a supervisor in the agency’s Brooklyn office, said in a recent interview.
Employees lack adequate protective gear, are not provided with sufficient technology to facilitate working from home and are occasionally expected to report to work to complete paperwork that could be done remotely, with modernized protocols, Jones said.
“We’ve not actually been given any information of who’s tested positive, who’s been symptomatic or who died from the virus in our agency,” he said.
Earlier this year, Jones went public with concerns about insufficient face masks and expired hand sanitizer for workers whose jobs require private home visits to check on child abuse allegations.
A spokesperson for the agency, which has reported 10 Covid-related staff deaths, said child protective specialists are effectively first responders. They have been largely allowed to work from home, but must occasionally report to their offices, while supervisors and managers are expected to come into an office at least one day each week.
The agency is asking families it interacts with about virus symptoms, and is encouraging video conferencing and the use of alternative locations for interviews, the spokesperson added.
Similarly some employees in the Department of Social Services were expected to report to work for jobs that union leaders argue they could have performed from home if the city better facilitated remote-work policies. That agency, which includes the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services, has recorded 37 deaths from the virus.
Though the de Blasio administration received a state waiver on March 16 allowing New Yorkers to apply for cash assistance online and by telephone — permission that has been extended every 30 days since — some city-run benefits centers have remained open throughout the pandemic.
Gloria Middleton, president of CWA Local 1180, said one of her members who worked for the HRA was so distressed about having to work in person with inadequate protective gear that he emailed her in late March comparing the agency’s actions to “negligent homicide.”
Staff at the HRA had been forbidden from wearing masks while servicing clients, for fear of stoking panic, the New York Times previously reported. At the time, Commissioner Steve Banks attributed his March 12 directive to guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which did not enforce a mask mandate for several more weeks.
Banks later informed staff they could don face coverings distributed by union leaders, according to a March 29 email chain shared with POLITICO.
“Too little too late,” one employee wrote in response.
An agency spokesperson said that as a result of transferring benefit applications online, the agency has been able to consolidate its locations so that only one program site is typically open in each borough for clients continuing to apply in person. Nearly 85 percent of the department’s staff worked from home at the height of the pandemic and 70 percent are still working remotely, the spokesperson added.
During the height of the contagion, two-thirds of the city workforce was allowed to work remotely, mayoral spokesperson Laura Feyer said. The mayor’s team distributed more than 24,000 telework devices, 220 million face coverings, 23 million pairs of gloves, 2.8 million isolation gowns, 2 million bottles of hand sanitizer and 500,000 cleaning supplies.
“Since the horror we experienced in the spring, supply chains have stabilized, testing and tracing have become commonplace and a vaccine has arrived in New York City,” Feyer added.
The equipment was not enough to protect 14 people who died while working for the city’s Department of Correction.
Prisons and jails were such hotbeds for the spread of the virus that Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the early release of about 1,100 inmates. Correction officers found themselves in what their union president, Benny Boscio, repeatedly referred to as “the epicenter of the epicenter.”
Back in April, the union successfully filed suit against the city in a bid to obtain more personal protective equipment, allow guards to wear masks and avail officers of free Covid tests. Boscio said his union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, also spent its own funds and raised money to purchase masks for its members.
“They could have social distanced properly. They could have shut down the visits and stopped the outsiders from coming in much earlier,” Boscio said. “The department has always been reactive instead of proactive.”
What’s more, he said, about 400 officers who remained home because they were experiencing symptoms of the virus were given “chronic status,” which is used to discipline employees who abuse sick leave. One quarter of those officers were denied an appeal, despite demonstrating justified leave, Boscio added.
A city spokesperson said the department allowed for Covid-19 exemptions to chronic status and 61 percent of appeals were approved through early November — an 11 percent increase from the previous two years.
Few city workers endured the daily stresses of the pandemic like the roughly 4,200 emergency medical technicians whose ubiquitous sirens became a soundtrack to the city’s struggle for survival throughout the spring.
But the EMTs, who are paid substantially less than their counterparts in other public safety agencies, were not given adequate masks, gowns and sanitizing equipment as they were risking their lives, two union leaders told POLITICO. So far five have died from Covid-19 and several more died by suicide this year.
The union representing EMTs, Local 2507, instructed its members to violate city orders that restricted the use of N95 masks during the initial weeks of the virus, vice president Mike Greco said.
“Throughout the pandemic, FDNY has always maintained the highest level of PPE possible for its members. We have followed CDC guidelines every step of the way and adjusted as new information and guidance was released,” Frank Dwyer, a spokesperson for the FDNY, which employs paramedics, said, referring to personal protective equipment. “The department never ran out and worked diligently to ensure it always had an adequate supply, especially early on when the entire world was competing for the required PPE.”
Anthony Almojera, vice president of the EMS officers’ union, painted a dire picture of a workforce desperate to obtain just the minimum amount of gear. He noted the irony, since paramedics are trained to properly wear face coverings during an annual drill at the Fire Academy.
“When it comes to PPE I had it in my head that there’s a building someplace that all it is is floor-to-ceiling masks and gowns,” he said. “Someplace that maybe you and I — we can’t have the keys both to access it at the same time, like a nuclear submarine.”
“Guess what?” he added during a recent interview. “It didn’t exist.”
Six days after the interview, the FDNY announced another EMT, 58-year-old Evelyn Ford, had died from the virus.
Michelle Bocanegra and Joe Anuta contributed to this report.
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