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Environmental Protection Workers Told to Return to Office After Colleague’s Death

The Department of Environmental Protection's Elmhurst, Queens headquarters.
The Department of Environmental Protection’s Elmhurst, Queens headquarters. Photo: Google Maps

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Employees at the Department of Environmental Protection’s Elmhurst headquarters were notified Thursday afternoon about a coworker’s death from coronavirus — and then asked to return to work on Monday, THE CITY has learned.

Staffers are alarmed their offices have not been shut down, despite the Thursday morning death of Robert Moody, a mailroom supervisor in the DEP’s Bureau of Customer Services. And there are at least seven other confirmed COVID-19 cases among agency employees in the building, officials said.

Four DEP employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, told THE CITY they believe the agency is endangering their health by keeping the offices at 59-17 Junction Blvd. open.

They said no protective gear has been supplied, that their requests for time off haven’t been addressed and that the agency hasn’t conducted a deep clean of the floors with confirmed cases.

DEP employees work in close quarters in the agency's Elmhurst offices.
DEP employees work in close quarters in the agency’s Elmhurst offices. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

Moody, whose coworkers said was in his 50s, last reported to work on March 18, according to the DEP. In the days leading up to his death, employees who worked in close proximity with him said they had no idea he had contracted COVID-19.

They said they were informed about Moody’s condition on Monday — just three days before he died.

“We didn’t know,” said one employee who has worked at the DEP for more than a decade. “I walked in the room today [Thursday] and we got this news at 12 p.m.”

The employee said though many other agency staffers had been permitted to work from home, a select group was still being asked to risk their lives.

“We have never been essential but because it’s convenient for them to say that we are essential now, they are using this word against us,” the DEP worker said. “It feels like we’re sacrificial lambs.”

Feeling ‘Exposed’

Edward Timbers, a DEP spokesperson, told THE CITY that 30 employees, across various agency locations, were confirmed to have the coronavirus as of Thursday morning. Seven of those people “reported” to the Elmhurst headquarters — an office that normally has about 2,500 DEP staff working daily across numerous floors of the 20-story building, he said.

The agency acknowledged that many staffers are already working from home, but not all. “Today only about 16% of the employees who would typically report to headquarters did so,” said Timbers.

DEP worker Robert Moody, Jr. died from the coronavirus on Thursday. Photo: RMoodyJR/Facebook

Documents obtained by THE CITY show that there are other coronavirus cases from at least two other DEP locations —  60 Bay Street on Staten Island and 96-05 Horace Harding Expressway, which is next door to the Elmhurst HQ. Select employees of these sites were notified about the cases and asked to “monitor themselves” for symptoms while continuing to report to work, an email shows.

Several staffers told THE CITY they did not see any attempts to thoroughly sanitize the floor where Moody worked, other than closing the mailroom. They added that Moody circulated correspondence across multiple floors, that employees work very closely and that social distancing measures had not been implemented.

When asked why the floors with confirmed coronavirus cases hadn’t been shut down, sealed and disinfected, Timbers said that the agency follows guidelines supplied by the Department of Citywide Administration Services for “cleaning the employee’s work area when a confirmed case is reported.”

Another employee said that just getting to work compounded the risk of getting infected, with many staff commuting through the subway hub at 74th Street in Jackson Heights — just two blocks away from Elmhurst Hospital, which has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

“Once you leave your home, you are exposed,” said the staffer, who lives in Brooklyn. “They [DEP] are not going by the state rules. The state wants you to stay home.”

‘The Fear Factor’

DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza emailed agency staffers Thursday afternoon to share the news of Moody’s death. He wrote about Moody’s wide smile, dedication to his elderly mother, and love of superheroes.

Sapienza also mentioned that staffers could rely on free, confidential mental health counseling provided by the city’s Employment Assistance Program.

Part of an email that was sent to DEP employees. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

Employees told THE CITY they want time off to stay inside for the next week or so — a period that city and state officials have darkly forecasted could be the peak of virus contagion levels — and for a deep cleaning of their worksite.

A longtime DEP staffer with preexisting conditions who is over 60 said employees were scared by the prospect of going to work and then coming home to family members. The staffer added that some supervisors have not notified their units about the number of confirmed cases in the building.

Come Monday, employees will have to make a judgment call for themselves and their families about whether to return to work — jobs they said they need to support their families.

“This virus is not racist, or ageist. It doesn’t care how big you are, how strong you are,” one worker said. “It just gets you.”

“Everyone around is afraid in that office. Everyone is afraid of losing their job too. It’s the fear factor. They are working on our fears.”

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