Like many working mothers, I struggled to balance work and life long before Covid. I was overwhelmed and exhausted, and despite having a steady job as a senior manager in the New York City Planning Department with good benefits, living wages, reasonable hours, and caring leadership, I often considered to resign.
In the midst of this midlife crisis, the pandemic struck, and I was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. In March 2020, I started chemotherapy when my two school-aged daughters started distance learning. Before the end of the year, my father suffered a debilitating stroke. After five months sick leave, I returned to work.
Unlike the nearly two million women who have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, I have been able to continue working. I could collaborate with my co-workers at home while I supervised the cooking of dinner on the stove or I threw clothes in the laundry. My husband and I could take turns picking our daughters from school between meetings, and the time I once spent commuting was spent getting more sleep and exercise.
The agency performed well in teleworking: the key performance indicators for fiscal 2020 were as good, if not better, than the previous year. And the rest of the city government fulfilled its mission as workers were far away, holding land use hearings, holding primary elections, running the campaign finance system, monitoring air quality, examining building plans, managing the payroll of 300,000 workers, preparing the budget and overseeing the city’s legal affairs.
It was great to be able to serve the city while taking care of my family and my own health. But when Mayor Bill de Blasio abruptly announced this month that city workers are due to return to office full-time starting this Monday, also the first day of classes for public schools, it felt like an invitation to to resign.
Since I joined the agency in 2004, I have never seen such low morale and such high turnover. In the days following the announcement of the mayor’s return to work, frustration turned to fury. Employees feel looked down upon, ignored and undervalued. I don’t want to quit, but I also don’t want to go back to my pre-pandemic life, a life of too little sleep, too much responsibility and not enough time.
The return warrant forces me to make what seems like an unnecessary choice between my career and my family, between my health and my duty to my colleagues and the city. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I share the concerns of other city workers that the return to the office is too sudden for parents scrambling for child care and too risky with the soaring Delta variant and no distancing requirement at the office. But what really makes me consider leaving after more than 15 years of municipal service is my fear of returning to the office indefinitely eight hours a day, five days a week after experiencing the flexibility of remote working. After only a few days of being back in the office full time, I already have a familiar feeling of weariness and anxiety.
Supporters of a full return to the office note that most city workers cannot work from home and are already back in person. It is fair to recognize the sacrifices of frontline workers, but demanding a return to the office for all other workers does not help them. My daughters’ teachers are not safer because I go to the office; in fact, I now present a greater risk of exposure for my children, who are too young to be vaccinated.
Additionally, forcing employees for whom face-to-face work is not essential to return to the office could create a crisis. I’m not the only city employee considering resigning because of a mayor’s order. According to an internal survey conducted in July by 73% of my agency’s employees, 40% said they would look for another job if the city stopped allowing remote working. Many have started to search. Others have already left.
The post-pandemic return to power landscape
This is a huge problem because the need for skilled workers in city administration is greater than ever. The pandemic has only deepened and accelerated the government’s dependence on technology and information. For example, remote community board meetings and hearings during the pandemic were only possible thanks to the rapid deployment of the NYC Engage portal, which was developed by a team of more than two dozen staff. planning, including town planners, software engineers, websites. designers, experts in the land use planning review process, lawyers, communications specialists and project managers. All of these employees could easily get private sector jobs with higher wages and remote working options. And I’m afraid a lot of them will.
The possibility that a municipal agency, even a small one like town planning, could lose 40 percent of its staff should be alarming, especially during a pandemic and at the dawn of a new administration. Highly skilled and tech-savvy professionals and new recruits work in all branches of municipal government, from firefighters to the Monument Preservation Commission, Police Department, Human Rights Commission and Department. education.
We are the bridges between administrations and between parties, the limited continuity that municipal government has in times of disruption. This is the worst time to push the dedicated city professionals out.