Gotham Gazette

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It’s More Important Than Ever for the City to Take Care of Those Who Care for the Most Vulnerable New Yorkers

cm helen rosenthal local girl

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, the author (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

To address the coronavirus crisis and save lives, New York City government and New Yorkers are mobilizing in ways never seen before. The City swiftly sent an unprecedented message to our human services sector -- the 250,000-plus employees who provide housing access, child and elder care, shelters, emergency food relief, mental health counseling, and disaster response. These workers -- traditionally undervalued, underpaid, and unappreciated -- were told that they are on the front-line of the COVID-19 crisis, and they will be appropriately supported for their dedication. 

The City made it clear that all programs will be paid in-full, even if services have to be adjusted. Human services providers will be reimbursed for additional COVID-19 costs, such as safety supplies and staff shortage or personnel changes. And the City is streamlining its administrative practices to further assist providers. These are all profoundly helpful measures. 

To its great credit, the City took these measures within the first days of the crisis, during a period of great uncertainty. At the same time, both the de Blasio administration and the city Comptroller’s office have worked to expedite payments to human services providers as soon as invoices come in. 

But there is more to be done. Here are the next steps.

Front-line human services workers should be paid overtime for their hours spent working directly with the public. Why? Because they are risking their lives for those most in need: case workers and janitors who work at shelters; street homeless outreach workers; and staff at senior centers. As the City negotiates “incentive pay” for its own front-line staff, the non-profit agencies that provide city services should be given the same consideration.

For those who need it, front-line human service workers should be given child care vouchers to pay family members or trusted neighbors to watch their children.

Lastly, to put everyone’s mind at ease, human services providers should be given reassurance now that their contracts will be renewed in the next fiscal year, which starts this July 1. Now is the time to allow these mission-driven nonprofits to focus on the needs at hand. Just a few weeks into this crisis, we are already seeing a surge in unemployed New Yorkers who will need food pantry and other social safety net assistance and a lack of sufficient support for already vulnerable residents, such as seniors and people with disabilities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what many working class people have always known: the heroes in our society are very often the ones with traditionally undervalued roles. Now more than ever, we must see the value in the workers who care for our elders and young children; the staff who support our homeless shelters; the employees who keep our food pantries open; the counselors who staff our emergency hotlines; and many, many others. 

We can’t get through this crisis without them. As quickly as possible, let’s move forward and fully support the human services sector’s critical work by providing childcare, financial security, and ongoing resources in the city budget.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal is a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @HelenRosenthal.

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