Saul Fishman, the President of the Civil Service Bar Association, (CSBA) has been fighting to keep his members as safe as possible from needless exposure to COVID-19. Theoretically, CSBA members, the Attorneys for almost every city mayoral agency as well as for the Housing Authority and the Transit Authority, should be among the safest of city employees, as their legal work can almost always be performed via telecommuting, the procedure recommended by every guidance ranging from DCAS to the City and State Departments of Health to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Virtually all courts and tribunals are continuing to function remotely.

Recently, several agencies have begun pressuring members to come back to the office, on a part-time basis, to perform the exact same work in person as can be done equally effectively from home. That fight isn’t over, especially with the second wave crashing hard over our city and nation. But when Saul heard that the Fire Department’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials (“BITS”) unit was being ordered to conduct in-person investigations and Step I hearings, many of which involved respondents and witnesses who as Emergency Medical Technicians are at the very highest risk of COVID exposure and infection, he hit the roof. Under a “return to work plan” written specifically to endanger the workers in this unit, when any one party requests an in-person hearing, they must be given one, without regard for the safety or objections of other participants.

When a Labor-Management meeting, involving not only Saul but also Susan McQuade, Local 237’s Health & Safety Coordinator, went nowhere, he filed a group grievance at Step III seeking to stop this dangerous practice before someone gets seriously ill (or worse). He pressed for a follow-up meeting not only with the Fire Department but also involving the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations. Unfortunately, OLR refused to stop this insanity.

Distress calls understandably poured in, as the unit supervisor was not only demanding that members start coming in the following week but that they also immediately schedule in-person hearings. With the Step III hearing date still almost a month away, and given the track record of OLR siding almost exclusively with the agency, Saul insisted on skipping Step III and demanded Step IV arbitration ASAP. And when he heard that the New York City Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee was having a hearing on a couple of proposals related to making city employees safer from COVID, he instantly involved Susan McQuade, and they both testified at the hearing on Friday November 20th. Here are excerpts from their testimony.

Testimony of Saul Fishman, President of the Civil Service Bar Association.

…The Civil Service Bar Association (“CSBA”), which represents the attorneys who work hard and smart each day for virtually every city agency, as in more than 40 mayoral agencies large and small, as well as attorneys working for the Housing Authority and the Transit Authority. We have a touch over 1,000 members, and are proudly affiliated with Teamsters Local 237.

…Recommend the passage of Intro 2162-2020, the bill before this committee sponsored by its Chair, the Honorable Daneek Miller and co-sponsored by Councilmember Ampry Samuel.

… This bill would amend the Administrative Code to require the Citywide Office of Occupational Safety and Health (“COSH”) to monitor the guidance published by the various Federal, State and City agencies that issue such guidance, forward it to each city agency’s health & safety coordinator within 24 hours, who would then be required to send a summary to each employee tailored to what is relevant to that employee based upon the risks posed by that person’s job title.

Good as this bill is, and the Civil Service Bar Association and Teamsters Local 237 support it, there is more to be done, more unnecessary risk being inflicted upon city workers that needs exposure and prompt intervention. As we testify safely, remotely today, several CSBA members in the Fire Department are being forced to participate in person in meetings and hearings with extremely high-risk respondents and witnesses,
including Emergency Medical Technicians (“EMTs”). Indeed, the FDNY’s own Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Prezant, conducted a study concluding that EMTs are about 15 times more likely to be COVID-infected than the average New Yorker. These meetings and hearings can, should, and in fact have heretofore been conducted safely and effectively remotely by teleconference. I am specifically referring to the FDNY Bureau of Investigations and Trials unit (“the BITS unit”), where dedicated attorneys act as prosecutors enforcing rules against employee misconduct. These are folks who believe in following the rules, but who are being forced to either follow the brand-new, arbitrary, reckless rules written specifically for their unit, which forces them to appear in person wherever any one party wants an in-person hearing, or to be considered insubordinate for not putting their health and indeed their lives and the lives of their families at risk.

By contrast, and ironically, the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations, which handles Step III disciplinary grievances, is only meeting remotely. We met remotely with them and the Fire Department to try to resolve this issue, but they failed to intervene to have these city workers be kept as safe as OLR is keeping itself. Arbitrators handling the final step, Step IV disciplinaries, via the Office of Collective Bargaining, are also meeting exclusively online. Indeed, all responsible entities are following guidances for remote hearings. The Family Court, which handles important abuse and neglect cases involving children, meets remotely. I know, because we represent approximately 200 members who handle far too many cases for the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (“ACS”) Family Court Legal Services, many of whom have contacted me about the challenges presented by remote hearings. And you may have heard the news that New York
courts have once again stopped having jury trials out of safety concerns during this second wave of the pandemic.

So I am respectfully requesting that this committee investigate and act to stop this city agency’s shortsightedness and hypocrisy, while supporting the good work advanced by the bill being considered by this committee.

With that, I am requesting that my colleague from Local 237, Health & Safety Coordinator Susan McQuade, briefly address this committee.

Testimony of Susan McQuade, Health and Safety Coordinator for Teamsters Local 237.

… Intro 1797, which would create a public informational campaign concerning workers’ rights under the earned safe and sick time act, is an important initiative to ensure that all workers in our city know what time they can be paid when they are out sick. Posting information at public places, especially in multiple languages, is a great way to reach those who may not be informed of these rights. Our union received many calls from members about sick time during this pandemic, and giving that information
to all workers will help to protect others from undue illness and will allow them to stay home if they are sick.

Likewise, the Council’s efforts to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the dissemination of occupational safety and health information to city employees during a public health emergency, would be a great step in the right direction. This rapid dissemination of information, within 24 hours of receipt of such guidance from various agencies, and requiring that this latest information be posted in workplaces, and emailed to employees of the agency, with information shortened with the information most relevant to their job title concerns, would be an effective public health intervention – getting up-to-date information in a concise fashion is a much needed element , as we have seen during this pandemic, and would keep us all focused on the present issues of concern. We are supportive of any measures that can better inform people on how to best protect themselves, and with so much information coming at them in these past months, more targeted messaging is essential if we wish to get workers up to speed on the most current concerns. Having these health and safety bulletins could also take a prominent place on the agency’s webpage, as workers could check that on a regular basis to see what information is new. in addition, training for employees is a key component that has often been overlooked/not conducted, and that also needs to be central to any plan to best protect employees during these times of national emergencies.

Finally, establishing a board to review workplace health and safety guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic would be a welcome addition, as it will allow a review to ensure that employers are adhering to the protocols. As with most occupational safety and health issues and protocols, oversight of some sort is needed to ensure best compliance, as employers can interpret such guidances that favor their interpretation of an issue over the intent of the guidance, which is to protect workers from undue exposure.
All proceedings of the board should be made public, we would suggest that hearings should be held to address major concerns. There should be union representation on this board, and input should be sought from the employees and their organizations at these early stages, to ensure that all issues are being addressed with an eye towards best protecting New York City workers for unsafe conditions. Please consider that the board would remain in place not for a fixed time period of 180 days, but for the length of the health emergency at hand. As we are now entering our tenth month COVID, it is clear that continued involvement of the Board as new issues arise will be most beneficial.