An combustible mix of workers without masks entering apartments to make repairs, an aging tenant population and a lack of information is roiling NYCHA complexes across the city.
A series of email exchanges among Bronx housing development managers suggests coronavirus is taking a toll in absences, illnesses and worse. Meanwhile, standard safety precautions are missing in a public housing system where 20% of the 400,000 tenants are 62 or older — an age group vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19.
One in four NYCHA tenants live in The Bronx — and, as THE CITY reported Friday, borough residents are dying of COVID-19 at twice the citywide rate.
“In my senior buildings, I had 4 deaths related to COVID-19 and probably more that I’m not aware of,” Robin Reed, property manager at a Bronx development wrote Friday in an internal email obtained by THE CITY.
Reed, who manages two Union Avenue NYCHA developments in the South Bronx, noted that a building caretaker there had tested positive and was hospitalized after being in “direct contact” with multiple staff members.
“I understand about confidentiality but when dealing with a deadly virus that we can potentially take home to our families, we need answers as to why we still need to remain at work or why ALL of us must come to work at the same time!” Reed wrote.
“Why hasn’t a plan of action been put in place, why are we at work every day, why are residents allowed to bring in paperwork that is potentially contaminated, regardless whether they slip it through the window.”
Reed reported placing a purchase order for protective masks for staff a couple of weeks ago, but had yet to receive the shipment.
Masks Missing All Over
That lack of protective gear is a systemwide issue, Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for NYCHA, confirmed to THE CITY.
“We have ordered masks, but as expected, all backorder/delayed,” she wrote.
As of Sunday, she added, “We are advising all NYCHA employees to wear a face covering — anything that covers the nose and mouth — when performing their job duties, including work in residents’ apartments.”
Union leader Gregory Floyd said the lack of masks showed NYCHA was not prepared to handle the outbreak. Hundreds of workers have called in sick, he added.
“They had no plan and now they lost a lot of staff because people are out sick,” said Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents 8,000 NYCHA employees.
As the virus has spread, killing 2,472 New York City residents as of Sunday evening, NYCHA officials, unlike those at most city agencies, could not say how many staff members had tested positive or if any employee had passed away due to the virus.
They said they do not track the coronavirus-related testing, illness or deaths of public housing residents.
Meanwhile, NYCHA workers have continued to perform a wide variety of tasks inside tenants’ apartments without the protection of masks.
That includes emergency repairs such as hot water outages and water leaks, and non-emergency work required under NYCHA’s agreement with federal authorities to inspect thousands of apartments for lead paint.
Housing Authority workers are also still responding to mold infestation complaints as part of a court ordered program to clean up apartments where tenants with asthma live.
Before entering an apartment, staffers are supposed to ask the tenant about their health and to practice social distancing within the unit.
They’ve also been told it’s okay to go into an apartment even if a tenant is sick — as long as the resident stays in a separate room behind a closed door until the repair is completed. Staff is also advised to open windows to increase ventilation while working.
Tenants can refuse entry to workers and get a new appointment date. Still, some of these apartment visits have created anxiety and tension.
‘Nobody’s Checked on Us’
Jessica, a tenant at Queens’ South Jamaica Houses, recounted a visit by two NYCHA workers last week to her apartment where she lives with her two sons. One of the men wore a mask he said he’d bought himself, while the other wore no mask at all.
“For you guys to come into my apartment, you’re putting us in danger. The guy tells us, ‘This is what they’re telling us to do. They haven’t given us any proper procedures,’” said Jessica, 36, who spoke to THE CITY on the condition that her full name not be revealed.
“We have elderly,” Jessica said. “We have handicapped in this building and nobody’s checked on us.”
She said she and her neighbors check on each other, door-knocking and asking how they’re feeling.
“We’re living door-to-door,” she said. “But I’m worried about the people below me. I know there’s an old man with an oxygen tank below me.”
‘Please Do Something’
In her emails Friday, Union Avenue building manager Reed — who declined to speak with THE CITY — exchanged horror stories with managers at several other Bronx developments.
Staff were testing positive or not showing up at all. Tenants were testing positive or blowing off shelter-in-place rules to show up at management offices with minor complaints.
On Friday, Reed reported, “I have 7 caretakers that called out today and 2 housing assistants that has [sic] been absent for 2 weeks. “
Catrice Houser, a housing manager at the Edenwald Houses, wrote, “Since Friday I had 6 deaths at my development. One I know for sure was due to the virus. Also I have staff who were expose[d] to the virus also.”
Linda Best, a housing manager at the Morrisania Air Rights/Jackson, wrote, “Not only are the residents getting sick but the staff as well. Nobody showed up today. I am by myself. Be safe everyone.”