Despite interruptions, work goes on
While unemployment claims in the state surge, no municipalities or school districts in the Highlands have yet furloughed any employees.
School districts have been extending pay for “non-essential” workers by two-week periods, while municipalities would seem to have no choice under an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 17 that states “any local government or political subdivision” must allow non-essential workers to work from home or take paid leave.
In Beacon, City Administrator Anthony Ruggiero said the city continues to pay all of its employees. Most of the office staff, he said, is working from home, while others, such as employees of the highway department, have been pared down, with some workers on standby.
At City Hall, “I’ll walk by and I see things happening on computers,” Ruggiero said. “It’s like an invisible person is there.”
The state gives city officials the authority to deem certain departments as “essential.” Some, like fire and police, are obvious, while there are others, including the highway department and water and sewer, that are being staffed by skeleton crews, with other workers called in as needed. As those situations arise, employees are being “spread out,” Ruggiero said, with one person per vehicle and other modifications.
The Beacon Fire Department has kept its regular rotation of two firefighters and the chief on duty at the Tompkins Hose station and one firefighter each at the Mase Hook and Ladder and Beacon Engine stations. (The city tentatively plans to no longer use the Beacon Engine station after the end of this month.)
However, the department is not holding any of its regular social events and volunteer firefighters are not allowed in the stations, Chief Gary Van Voorhis said. Volunteers, many of whom are seniors at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, may only respond to structure fires. In addition, the department is only responding to Level 1 (priority) calls. The Beacon Volunteer Ambulance Corps responds to all emergency calls.
The department is also conducting training exercises using social distancing protocols or online, he said.
Beacon police are handling some non-emergency calls by telephone, while non-emergency calls that require a response are being conducted utilizing social distancing, Chief Kevin Junjulas said. Officers have also been provided protective equipment to use for high-risk calls, for calls that require close contact, and for calls that require an officer to be inside with an individual, the chief said.
The town is still paying all of its employees, said Supervisor Richard Shea.
“With all the stress of the current crisis, the last thing we want to do is add to it,” he said. Staff members are working remotely or, if at an office, are spaced apart. “Obviously, if there is an emergency all staff will be called in.”
Since March 18, town highway employees have been following a one-week-on, one-week-off schedule to comply with state demands that municipalities cut staff on duty by 50 percent. “Our goal is to stay vigilant and keep all employees safe,” Superintendent Carl Frisenda wrote in a report to the Town Board.
Frisenda also reported that crews have been taking advantage of what “looks like an early spring” for repairing potholes on dirt roads and paved roads alike, grading in select spots, “keeping pipes and waterways cleared” and replacing pipes along some roads in anticipation of black-topping over the summer.
Village Board members agreed that all employees will continue to be paid their full salaries, even if their work hours are reduced. Employees based at Village Hall are working remotely or practicing social distancing while in the building.
School crossing guards will be paid based on the days they were scheduled to work, the village said. Police, highway, and water and sewer department employees are considered essential.
The Beacon City Board of Education at its March 23 meeting extended the district’s agreement with hourly and part-time employees through March 31 and is expected to approve a two-week extension at its April 14 meeting, Superintendent Matt Landahl said.
Teachers are working remotely, but “we need some people to come in for essential tasks,” Landahl said. “It’s mostly involved with food or bringing custodians in on a regular basis.”
The Haldane school board passed a similar resolution to pay its part-time employees through April 14.
In Garrison, Interim Superintendent Debra Jackson said that “our small size has everyone working.” (The district, one of the smallest in the state, has about 220 students in grades K to 8.) In addition to online learning, district staff are engaged with the child care program, or keeping up financial, training and other records, she said.
Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong and Michael Turton contributed reporting.