New York, NY – As New York City makes plans to ease restrictions revolving around social distancing and opening businesses, some unions are fighting to maintain social distancing at the workplace for its members that are essential workers that have to travel during the COVID-19 crisis.
They are also fighting just as hard to keep their members from leaving a stressful job, that doesn’t always pay well.
“The 911 operators are on top of each other,” said 2nd Vice President Ralph Palladino, Local 1549. “The situation isn’t even like a square hole in a round peg, it’s more like you have a box of a certain size, but you can’t separate everyone from within it, you need to increase the size of the box.”
Nearly a dozen 911 operators ended up dying from the virus, according to Palladino.
“We advocated for the NYPD to put up [plexiglass shield in the] cubicles around the desk to shield the operators and they agreed,” said Palladino. “Before it was basically an open-space cubicle and now we are getting it and doing it, but we had to get in there to get that.”
In the beginning of the crisis, 911 operators did have the personal protection equipment and were getting tested, but without the shield it was hard to maintain workflow and social distance, especially for its many members that were seniors, according to Local 1549 President Eddie Rodriguez.
“The governor is saying that anyone that was 65 should stay home,” said Rodriguez. “Yeah, that’s good for everybody else, but 911 can’t work at home.”
Some of the older members had to take time off from work so that they won’t get sick or they took supervisory roles, according Rodriguez. Others opted to retired.
“If I’m on the night shift and I have to do another shift, that is exhausting,” said Rodriguez.
Unfortunately, in a rush to replace operators that took time off or took on supervisory roles, the NYPD directed some of its members who were former 911-PTT (push-to-talk) to work at the call centers, but didn’t test them for COVID-19, according to Rodriguez.
“They had put in over 400 police officers, but they never tested them!” said Rodriguez. “Then some of the police officers were upset and didn’t want to do the job, but we made sure that they had the PPE.”
The city needs to hire more 911-PTT operators, according to Rodriguez.
“If we had enough operators, maybe they wouldn’t have to work every day, or we can have some on one shift and others on a different schedule. They also wouldn’t have to work overtime, or be exhausted. Sometimes they finish a shift and they try to keep you.”
For the moment, the 911 operators are not as overwhelmed as they were in March and April, but Rodriguez hopes the city will hire more 911 operators in the future.
“There is a bill in Washington to make them official first responders because of their work,” said Palladino.
Despite offloading the non-emergency calls for 911, 311 members are in the same boat as the 911 operators and they also have to deal with an additional work function, according to Palladino.
“The 311 operators also have to go through text messages, that is something the 911 operators won’t go through yet until maybe June 1,” according to Palladino.
The call centers for 311 used to average 40,000 to 55,000 calls daily, but during the height of the pandemic they received 150,000 to 200,000 calls daily, according to a Local 1549 Spring/Summer 2020 newsletter.
Similar to the 911 operators, their 311 counterparts still had to travel to work, according to Palladino. To maintain social distancing, they were relocated to other buildings and break room areas were transformed as new office space. Unfortunately, despite doing work similar to 911 operators with the additional job of checking text messages, 311 operators make far less.
“It is hard to maintain staffing at 311 because the pay is low,” said Palladino. “As soon as they jump in, they leave to get other jobs.”
A call center job is highly technical and requires these operators to remember over 500 different codes to solve issues, according to Palladino.
The make around $28,000 to $30,000 a year, according to Rodriguez.
“It’s not easy work and we need more of them,” said Palladino. “The federal government needs to raise taxes on the rich.”
Operators at 311 call centers tend to stay on for two years and eventually leave for customer service jobs that pay much more, according to Rodriguez.
“We are doing are best to bargain to make sure they get more money and get promotions,” said Rodriguez. “If people have families they have to go where the money is. You wouldn’t be able to get an apartment or would have to be on Section 8. Otherwise, they may have to get an additional job. If you pay them they will stay.”