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Working for the City

‘I Feel Like I’m Leaving a Sinking Ship:’ A Conversation With an Outgoing NYC Social Services Worker

“Morale is so low. The mayor is constantly criticizing his own workforce, people don’t feel there’s a positive culture.”

9:20 AM EDT on October 18, 2022

(Pawel Chu / Unsplash)

City agencies are bleeding talent and vacant positions aren’t being filled. The result is a municipal government that is less capable of serving New Yorkers than it used to be. To better understand what's happening on the inside, Hell Gate is running a series called "Working for the City," made up of conversations with current and former City workers about how the crisis in staffing has affected their jobs. We're giving these workers anonymity because they fear professional repercussions for speaking out about their employment with the City.

For this edition of the series, we spoke with an employee of the Department of Social Services who, at the time of our interview, was in the process of leaving their city job for a new private-sector position that pays better and allows remote work. The employee had been with DSS for about two years, focusing on projects that expand and facilitate access to SNAP and other benefits. 

The person described a “chaotic” work environment where cubicles are increasingly empty and efforts to provide services and implement policy are hampered by a proliferation of automated “I-no-longer-work-here” email replies. “Morale is so low. The mayor is constantly criticizing his own workforce, people don’t feel there’s a positive culture,” the worker told Hell Gate. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How are you seeing the staffing problems manifesting in the Department of Social Services?

I can attest to the fact that people are leaving every week. I’ve only been at my current agency for two years; it’s always been COVID land, and it’s been a mayoral transition, so people have been coming and going. But in my unit, the departures have escalated in the last few months. I don’t know what’s driving it—the return-to-office order has been in effect for about a year now—but in the last few months we’ve had a number of higher-level people leaving.

It doesn’t seem like it’s spread evenly across all City employees. Direct service people who work with clients, many of them haven’t had the option of working from home, and if they were to look for a similar job for another employer, it might not pay better or let them work from home either, so—from what I have heard anecdotally at least—there’s less of a mass exodus of people doing that kind of work. But people like me, who work in an office, who work on a computer, those people are all leaving for better pay and better flexibility. And that’s causing a lot of burnout as the people who stay are taking on additional jobs.

It’s interesting to hear you describe a split between the experience of computer workers and direct service workers.

Yes, people definitely talk about it, and there is a class and education and race aspect to it, which makes things complicated. It’s definitely a privilege to be able to leave for a better opportunity. 

What has it been like going back to the office?

When return-to-office started in May of 2021, I went back to the office, but after going in a few times, I knew I couldn’t keep doing it, due to a health reason. I submitted a reasonable accommodation request, and I worked from home while I waited to hear the result. Some offices made people come in while they were waiting for an RA approval or denial. I was lucky that in my office, I could work from home while I waited for a response. In the end, I never got a response. It was never rejected. It was never granted. I just never heard anything about it. 

It was frustrating, when I was going in. I was commuting an hour each way to sit in my cubicle and do zoom calls from my cubicle. We were not allowed to meet with people in person in the office, and we weren’t allowed to use the conference rooms. We were literally just doing what we’d been doing at home. The administration keeps justifying return-to-office by saying that we need in-person collaboration, but that’s just not what was happening—everything was still digital. We weren’t allowed to use the common spaces in many offices until 2022.

Is that how it’s still going?

It depends on the role you have in City government. A lot of my projects involve external stakeholders, so I’m on Webex all day anyway. It’s strange. It’s a cube farm, but on the plus side, from a health perspective, these days there are a lot of empty cubicles. From what I’ve seen on meetings and heard from people, masking is inconsistent. It’s to the point where people are just trying to protect themselves, not others.

But the way return-to-office has been implemented was not consistent across agencies and offices. I’ve heard there are offices that are still flexible—they’re not supposed to be, but they are. There are inconsistent guidelines around return to office. It’s been very hard for people to navigate. 

Do you think this an issue that a lot of City workers care about?

I’m involved with this group City Workers for Justice. It was formed in 2020 in response to budget and racial equality issues, but when COVID started, people started getting involved with it for lots of other reasons. When return-to-office was announced, we started hearing from so many City workers, like 10 or 20 every single day—people who were living with a family member with cancer, or pregnant, or immunocompromised themselves, or some other extenuating circumstance, and their reasonable accommodation requests kept getting denied. The Department of Education did a blanket denial of RA requests, which sounds illegal, but that’s what they did.

And then more recently, it seems like the Adams administration has spurred more people to get involved with the group. People are frustrated. The sweeps of homeless encampments upset many City workers. The fact that the City isn’t complying with the right to shelter mandate. A lot of people disagree with the public face of the administration, and as City workers, they want to say, “I work for the administration, but this isn’t me.” People are seeing themselves and their colleagues not getting promotions or raises and then Adams is hiring his friends or supporters for high-level positions with high salaries, and they’re mad about it.

Besides return-to-office, what do you think is driving the staffing problems?

Look, the City has been operating in a crisis mode ever since COVID. We still have a huge amount of SNAP applications over what we had on average before COVID, so New Yorkers need our services more, there’s more work to be done, but there are fewer and fewer people there to do it. And then, from a financial perspective, I haven’t gotten a raise, ever. During the depths of COVID, the City was using that as an excuse, but I’ve been [a City employee] for three years, and I haven’t even had a cost-of-living increase in that time.

The return-to-office mandate and the lack of flexibility around it is what caused a lot of this to snowball out of control. It’s not the only factor, but it’s what seemed to catalyze what’s happening. Among younger staff and people who have computer-based jobs, there are just better opportunities out there. A colleague of mine had a baby and said, “I can’t stay here, I could have much better opportunities elsewhere.”

And beyond the most practical considerations, it doesn’t feel good to work here. Morale is so low. The mayor is constantly criticizing his own workforce, people don’t feel there’s a positive culture. I don’t think that changing that factor alone would necessarily make people stay, but it’s a real issue nonetheless.

Are you able to keep doing the work under those conditions? It sounds like if this keeps going, things could get chaotic.

It's already pretty chaotic, and it will get more chaotic. I have a colleague that does a lot of work coordinating with higher-ups across various agencies and they just keep being met with, like, automatic reply after automatic reply, that they no longer work for this agency. I don't know what this will look like as that progresses, but it already means that things are being slowed down, because people have to figure out where to go to get a certain piece of something done when the usual person you could go to isn’t there anymore.

How does it feel to be leaving under these conditions?

I feel terrible. My job is being split up and given to two people who already have full-time jobs. I feel guilty about that. I feel like I’m leaving a sinking ship rather than trying to right it. But at the end of the day, I have to do what makes sense for me, and that’s the situation a lot of people are in.

If you were advising the mayor, what would you tell him to do to change this and make it better?

It sounds almost too vague to be practical, but listening to what workers are saying, listening to people in general, that’s what’s needed. De Blasio did “Ask the Mayor” on WNYC, and City workers were among the people calling in every week, and he’d at least answer them. The fact that Adams discontinued that is indicative of a lot of how he manages. 

There was a survey that went out to City employees to suggest ideas that could be implemented, and then people could vote on them and make comments on them. I was one of the people that was able to score these suggestions for the Department of Social Services. More than half of the top 10 voted suggestions were for flexible workplace policies. But nothing has come of that survey. The survey was put out in the spring, and the scoring was done in June. It's been a long time. We've had a lot of people follow up saying, “What happened to that City staff ideas challenge?” So I think if there's one thing that the mayor could do, it would be to actually take the feedback that he's getting, and acknowledge it with something more than insults about how we are at home in our pajamas.

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