COVID-19 and Rochester Labor
PEF Region 3
Interview with Randi DiAntonio and Leisa Abraham (representing Public Employees Federation Region 3), 16 May 2021
The Public Employees Federation (PEF) represents approximately forty-nine thousand eight hundred professional, scientific and technical workers across fifty-seven New York State agencies. There are roughly three thousand job titles covered by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), including nurses, teachers, inspectors, engineers, social workers, doctors, researchers, IT workers, workers' compensation reps, and many, many more. One CBA covers the whole of the PEF membership, with local agreements that address issues particular to the 255 divisions (locals), each of which has elected leaders. Across the bargaining unit, one steward is allowed per fifty members.
The Rochester area of five counties is PEF Region 3, with approximately twenty-one hundred members primarily (but not exclusively) at the Rochester Psychiatric Center, the School for the Blind, and the Departments of Transportation, Developmental Disabilities, Corrections, and Education. Two field reps work in Region 3 along with one Regional Coordinator.
At the outset of the pandemic, when little was known about COVID-19 except that it was deadly, many PEF members were redirected to, or volunteered to go to, NYC where the virus was especially virulent. PEF provided lodging for a number of members working in NYC who could not go home because of reassignment or fear of transmitting the virus to family. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was in exceedingly short supply; employees weren't permitted to provide their own face masks so individuals would wear the same mask day after day. Safety protocols were inconsistent across agencies, with local administrators left to set guidelines with little available expertise. While the State did not suspend all congregate settings (e.g. prisons), homes providing direct care to clients were closed as staff became unavailable. It is important to note that over the past ten years the State has reduced its PEF-represented workforce by more than six thousand positions, leaving agencies strapped for workers as COVID, or the threat of COVID, cut employees' availability.
No provisions were made by the State for on-site or off-site testing for workers, but as vaccines became available some facilities provided them on-site or allowed up to four hours leave to get vaccinated. Quarantining became common for those working in client-based facilities. PEF members at the Department of Labor were working seven days a week with vacation-time prohibited as they attempted to catch-up with the unprecedented number of unemployment insurance claims to be processed on a computer system designed in the 1980s.
Telework was welcomed and has preserved the health of many members, but often involved considerable overtime. Understandably, workers fear returning to workplaces with clients and coworkers who may not be vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic State agency guidelines were poorly communicated and often inconsistent with positions stated by the Governor. PEF leaders have regularly contacted the Governor, agency commissioners, and legislators to clarify policies and obtain accurate, effective guidelines as well as needed PPE. The centralization of control in Albany prevented local facilities from adapting to situations as needed; however, local legislators have been very responsive to issues raised in Region 3.