Black, Latino city workers faced disproportionate death toll in chaos of NYC pandemic


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 for retirement after years of messing around in New York City public schools when she finally got a permanent apprenticeship in Brooklyn last December. She felt a renewed connection with her kindergarten students and looked forward to more time at work.

Then, on April 6, just days after calling her younger sister screaming in pain, Bascom died alone in a Queens hospital room.

A few days later, Traci Belton, a supervisor at the city’s child protection agency, was so concerned about the risks she was exposed to at work that she turned to Facebook to share her fears with colleagues. A week later she was dead.

end of March Quinsey Simpson For the second time in 18 years he was reported sick from his job as a proofreader on Rikers Island. It would be his last: Simpson was hospitalized on March 25, a week after his 62nd birthday, and died two days later.

These New Yorkers are part of an unenviable club: at least 298 frontline city workers who have died from the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the city for most of the year, according to City Hall. For the past nine months, POLITICO has attempted to identify these employees based on information from several city authorities, news reports, obituaries and online honors, as well as trade unions, which typically have more names in their numbers than the city put on their list has its own count. The town hall has refused to publish the names of the deceased, citing data protection concerns.

These workers risked their own lives to care for others, sometimes without proper protective equipment and in some cases doing tasks that their friends, relatives and union leaders could have done at home.

They weren’t the doctors and nurses who dutifully cheered New Yorkers on every night through the dark spring days. They took care of public housing estates, ordered medical care, sent emergency calls, transported patients to hospitals in the area, and helped people apply for financial assistance. They were between 29 and 91 years old.

And they were predominantly blacks and Latinos – a sharp racial disparity that reflects the national trend of the pandemic.

It was only 298 people out of around 350,000 employees, but they died on active duty in New York City – often without fanfare, their lives being reminded by zoom calls or Facebook posts rather than the traditional death rituals that the pandemic restricted.

“This year has put our resolve to the test,” said Henry Garrido, president of the city’s largest community workers’ union, District Council 37, whose membership is mostly black and low-wage Latino workers. “Many of the professional tech titles were able to work remotely from home. But for the worst paid city workers, who basically did a lot of manual labor, for the food, for the cleaners in hospitals – their work required their presence. And those who were destined to be frontline workers – they had no choice. “

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has routinely accused the Trump administration of failing to protect frontline workers, saying in a prepared statement: “Our hearts break for the families of all the officials we have lost this year. All New Yorkers should take a moment to thank those who kept the city going in our darkest moments and remember those we lost. “

Now that the city is in a second wave of the virus and a vaccine becomes increasingly available, questions of who qualifies as an essential worker need to be addressed again. At the same time, de Blasio and several candidates who want to replace him next year have expressed their commitment to reassess the administration’s remote work policy.

March 1st in New York City Approved The first case of Covid-19 sparked a frenzied response from several city, state and federal agencies, which at times published conflicting guidelines. For the next two weeks, de Blasio wrestled with the city’s public school system, which trains 1.1 million students. By March 15, he reluctantly announced a system-wide shutdown that began the following day, but school staff continued to show up that week to prepare for the move to distance learning.

These days, workers were at an increased risk of contracting the virus, two prominent union leaders said in recent interviews.

“We were one of the last school systems to shut down,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. “At the same time, we had more viruses in our city and in our school system than anywhere else.”

“We could have faced reality much sooner,” added Gregory Floyd, president of Teamster Local 237, which represents school safety officers.

To date, 79 employees at the Department of Education – the largest city agency – have died of Covid-19, the highest number of deaths any city ministry has suffered. This emerges from a balance sheet published by the town hall. POLITICO calculated 88 deaths in the department based on additional data from unions representing school workers.

Another 13 security guards from the school and a border guard employed by the NYPD died from the virus, according to police.

Of the 83 school workers whose race POLITICO identified using publicly available information, 62 were black or Latinos – a quota equivalent to an urban workforce, 62 percent of whom are non-white. according to the latest available data.

The trend reflects a national divide that the coronavirus has exposed: residents of blacks and Latinos across the country have been more vulnerable to the death grip of the pandemic.

“Obviously there are differences and we talk about them all the time. Why? What could help? And we don’t know, “said Virginia Nunez, 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 employees in the city have health insurance, stressed Nunez.

“But the statistics show you that it was mainly minorities who worked in city authorities that were affected by Covid and died from it,” she said. “So maybe we put off going to the doctor? Could be. Could it be our diet? I have no idea. But it happens. ”

Health professionals have begun to work out why certain populations are more prone to the disease. early studies show that physical environment, poor working conditions, and lack of income and education have contributed to higher Covid death rates.

Romain-Hinds, who was black, received a kidney transplant years ago and had started dieting to lose weight in hopes of getting pregnant, Nunez said. She had recently married and raised two teenage girls at the age of 41 whom she adopted from Haiti after their parents died in an earthquake.

Romain-Hinds was aware of her own health problems and wore a mask during her final days in the school building, although her colleagues did not. City, state and federal leadership still had to demand thisSaid Nunez. She said she was not sure where Romain-Hinds caught the virus and expressed her condolences to city officials for the difficult decision to close schools.

In a nearby part of Queens, Sharolyn Vieira was worried about her 61-year-old sister. Sharon Bascom checked in with her Brooklyn school for a few days after it was closed to students and continued to work from home after her illness. Bascom had diabetes and her younger sister wanted her to rest at home in their common house, where they had long ago removed part of the wall separating their apartments.

Days after Vieira took her sister to the New York Presbyterian Hospital in Queens, Bascom was in audible distress. “I called and she just started screaming. She shouted, “I’m in so much pain, I’m in so much pain. I will die here,” Vieira recalled in the spring. A cousin called to pray with “Sister Kim” as she did other parishioners in Ozone Park Church of the Nazarene was known.

A few nights later, hospital officials called with news that Bascom had died. They promised that she would see her sister one last time on a video call, but that never happened, she said.

“So my last picture of my sister is the day I took her to the hospital,” said Vieira. “It hurts because I blame myself – maybe I should have been more careful.”

Bascom, who had no children of her own, devoted her free time to helping parishioners pay for school supplies and do their homework, her cousin Errol Vieira, the church pastor, said in a recent interview. “When these children were growing up, Sister Kim gave them a present even if they didn’t [one] from anyone else, ”he said.

An Education Department spokesman said the agency thoroughly cleaned every building each day before staff training sessions in March. The sick teachers were advised to stay home.

For Traci Belton, a manager with the Administration for Children’s Services, the working conditions had become unsettling.

“You all know how ACS [has] No consideration for employee time, which puts us all in danger, ”she wrote in a Facebook post in early April. A few days later, she too died of the virus.

“Traci was very worried that she had to go to work because of her personal health problems,” said a friend and colleague, who asked for anonymity to talk about her job, in a subsequent interview.

Communication Workers of America Local 1180, which represents some ACS employees, filed a complaint with the city on Dec. 4, alleging that its members only had one 6-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, three surgical masks, and a pair Surgical gloves received for the last three months.

One of the agency’s offices lacked adequate ventilation and daily cleaning. In another location, workers were not following social distancing regulations, the union said.

“You tell us that when you create a safety plan, it has to be specific and mitigate the safety factors that make the child unsafe. I don’t think the city actually had a specific security plan for us based on this metric, ”Robert Jones, supervisor in the agency’s Brooklyn office, said in a recent interview.

Employees lack adequate protective equipment, do not have enough technology to make working from home easier, and are occasionally expected to report to work to complete paperwork remotely, using updated protocols could be done, said Jones.

“We didn’t get any information from our agency about who tested positive, who was symptomatic, or who died from the virus,” he said.

Earlier this year, Jones went public with concerns about inadequate face masks and expired hand sanitizer for workers whose jobs require private home visits to investigate allegations of child abuse.

An agency spokesman who has reported 10 employee deaths related to Covid said child protection specialists are effective first responders. They have been allowed to work from home for the most part but are occasionally required to report to their offices, while supervisors and managers are expected to come to an office at least one day a week.

The agency surveys families with whom it interacts about symptoms of the virus and encourages video conferencing and the use of alternative locations for interviews, the spokesman added.

Similarly, some Department of Social Services employees were expected to sign up for jobs that union leaders claim they could have worked from home if the city had better facilitated remote work policies. This agency, which includes Human Resources and the Department of Homeless Services, has recorded 37 deaths from the virus.

Although the de Blasio government received a government waiver on March 16 that allowed New Yorkers to apply for cash assistance online and by phone – the permit has been renewed every 30 days since then – some urban performance centers remained open throughout the pandemic.

Gloria Middleton, president of CWA Local 1180, said one of its members who worked for the HRA was so concerned about having to personally work with inadequate protective equipment that he emailed her in late March detailing the measures the agency likened to “negligent murder”.

For fear of panic, HRA employees were prohibited from wearing masks while looking after customers. the New York Times reported earlier. At the time, Commissioner Steve Banks traced his March 12 guideline to guidelines from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that had not enforced a mask mandate for several weeks.

Banks later told employees that they were unable to obtain coverage distributed by union leaders, according to an email chain shared with POLITICO on March 29.

“Too little too late,” replied one employee.

A spokesperson for the agency said that by broadcasting benefit claims online, the agency has been able to consolidate its locations so that typically only one program location in each district is open to clients who continue to apply in person. Almost 85 percent of the department’s staff were working from home at the height of the pandemic, and 70 percent are still working remotely, the spokesman added.

During the peak of the contagion, two-thirds of the city’s workforce were allowed to work remotely, said Mayor Laura Feyer. The mayor’s team distributed more than 24,000 teleworking devices, 220 million face covers, 23 million pairs of gloves, 2.8 million isolation gowns, 2 million bottles of hand sanitizer, and 500,000 detergents.

“Since the horror we saw last spring, supply chains have stabilized, testing and tracing is the order of the day, and a vaccine has arrived in New York City,” added Feyer.

The equipment was insufficient to protect 14 people who died while working for the city’s Justice Department.

Prisons and prisons were such breeding grounds for the spread of the virus that Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered it to be early release of about 1,100 inmates. Corrections officials found themselves in what their union president Benny Boscio repeatedly referred to as the “epicenter of the epicenter”.

The union was already in April Lawsuit successfully filed against the city to get more personal protective equipment, allow guards to wear masks, and commission officers with free Covid tests. Boscio said his union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, had also spent its own funds and raised money to buy masks for its members.

“You could have distanced yourself socially. They could have closed the visits and prevented outsiders from coming in much earlier, ”said Boscio. “The department has always been reactive instead of proactive.”

In addition, around 400 officers who stayed home because they had symptoms of the virus were given the “chronic status,” which is used to discipline employees who abuse the sick leave. A quarter of these officials have been denied appeal despite proof of legitimate leave, Boscio added.

A city spokesman said the department had approved exemptions from Covid-19 for chronic status, and 61 percent of appeals were approved by early November – an 11 percent increase over the previous two years.

Few of the city workers endured the daily stress of the pandemic like the 4,200 paramedics whose omnipresent sirens became a soundtrack for the city’s struggle for survival as the spring wore on.

However, the EMTs, who are paid significantly less than their counterparts in other public safety agencies, were not given adequate masks, robes and disinfectants because they risked their lives, two union leaders told POLITICO. So far, five have died of Covid-19 and several others died of suicide this year.

The Local 2507 union, which represents EMTs, directed its members to violate city ordinances that restricted the use of N95 masks during the virus’ first weeks, Vice President Mike Greco said.

“During the pandemic, FDNY has always maintained the highest possible level of PSA for its members. We followed and adjusted CDC guidelines every step of the way as new information and guidance came out, ”said Frank Dwyer, an FDNY spokesman for paramedics on personal protective equipment. “The department never ran out and worked diligently to make sure there was always an adequate supply, especially at the beginning when the whole world was competing for the PPE needed.”

Anthony Almojera, vice president of the EMS officers’ union, painted a terrible picture of a workforce that was desperate to procure the smallest amount of equipment. He noted the irony that paramedics receive training on how to properly wear face coverings during an annual exercise at the fire academy.

“When it came to PPE, it was in my head that there was a building somewhere that was all about floor-to-ceiling masks and dresses,” he said. “Somewhere where you and I might – we can’t both have keys to access them at the same time, like a nuclear submarine.”

“Guess what?” he added in a recent interview. “There wasn’t.”

Six days after the interview, the FDNY announced another EMT, 58-year-old Evelyn Ford. died from the virus.

Michelle Bocanegra and Joe Anuta contributed to this report.

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