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PEF tells state lawmakers of pandemic’s effects on state workforce

By SHERRY HALBROOK

PEF President Wayne Spence zeroed in on some of the most critical issues that have faced PEF members when he was invited to testify at a joint state legislative hearing on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the state workforce.

In the brief time witnesses were allowed to present their oral testimony, Spence told the state legislators that the pandemic revealed how much the public depended on the services of essential state employees.

It also revealed how years of understaffing and under resourcing left the state unprepared to deal with the monumental challenge of serving thousands of New Yorkers suddenly ill with a new and potentially deadly virus, protecting employees  and the public from the virus, and processing millions of unemployment claims as the emergency shutdown caused a tidal wave of layoffs.

Some state employees had to try to work effectively from home while others were on the front lines and struggled to stay safe while dealing directly with members of the public who, in many cases, were infected with the virus.  Shortages of the crucial personal protective equipment heightened the danger for everyone.

Employees were directed to work many hours of overtime to try to make up for the understaffing, and after they did it many found they were paid based on a lower salary grade than their own.  That happened because they were directed to work out-of-title to fill in the gaps that resulted from poor staffing and a greatly heightened demand for services.

The state Labor Department, Health Department and the SUNY Downstate and Stony Brook hospitals were among the agencies where this problem was most prevalent.

Spence said he dreaded the day-to-day scramble he faced because the governor would say one thing at his daily press conferences and then the union would get something very different from state commissioners and agency heads.

“The governor might say that employees were getting a mask every day, and our members were being told to make one mask last a week,” Spence told the lawmakers.

The governor might direct agencies to maintain a 90-day supply of PPE, “but what does a 90-day supply actually look like?” Spence asked.

Now, the state workforce will surely see massive furloughs and layoffs if the federal government fails to provide billions of dollars in aid to the state to help it recover, Spence said.  The heroic efforts of state employees will be repaid with pink slips and those who remain will feel the crushing burden of understaffing grow dramatically worse.

And when New Yorkers can’t get the timely and high-quality services they need, agencies will shift the blame to their employees.

“They’ll blame our members,” Spence predicted.

You can watch a recording of the hearing here.