Sept. 10, 2021 — A mother requested reasonable accommodation to continue telecommuting so she can transport her son with special needs to required summer schooling. Another needs a reasonable accommodation (RA) to care for her son who is fighting a blood disorder.
A pregnant member’s doctor recommends she continue telecommuting, but her agency prefers to move her seat to a less trafficked area. Another suffers from severe asthma and hypertension and her doctor’s note cannot get her reasonable accommodation to continue working from the safety of her home.
The New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF) has denied most members’ requests for reasonable accommodation to continue telecommuting, which they have successfully done for over a year, under the premise that their accommodation would cause undue hardship for NYSIF. Some weren’t outright denied, but were given inadequate alternatives.
The responses make little sense to the members and Council Leader Kathy Czachorowski. Over the last year, NYSIF had nothing but praise for these same workers for telecommuting successfully, saying in internal agency emails:
“I’m proud that we were able to effectively transition from office to remote working during the COVID pandemic, with little or no negative consequences.”
“The most important thing we did in response to the COVID threat was to protect our staff. With the help of our ITS team and with your help, we quickly switched to working from home. We were able to reestablish all of our key business functions and we didn’t miss a beat.”
“We reached new levels of performance in many areas, including achieving a 99% call answer rate in our call center, with average hold times of less than 15 seconds, and achieving a 95% timeliness rate for initial payments to injured workers. Those performance levels are dramatically higher than they were just a few years ago. In DB [Disability Benefits], we reduced the average time to process a claim from 27 days to just 4 days.”
Where did all that praise and attention to employee safety go?
“Last I heard, there were more than 80 requests,” said Czachorowski. “We have only heard of one or two of our members being approved for an RA, after members filed an appeal. While some of the requests do not fall under the ADA guidelines, NYSIF has the discretion as an agency to approve these requests for RA. Instead, employees and their families suffer for no good reason, and at the worst possible time, during a pandemic that is not yet under control.
“It is shameful,” she said. “NYSIF policyholders should be aware that these decisions directly affect services provided and policyholder premiums. The money NYSIF saved over the last year and a half via telecommuting could be passed on to their policyholders, those New York state businesses they insure. The staff that will be leaving due to NYSIF’s unwillingness to be flexible will hinder services to all stakeholders.”
Most of the requested RAs are in the interest of health and safety: members with immunocompromised family members, pregnant women and those with comorbidities. There is real fear about going back to the office.
“People are very anxious,” Czachorowski said. “People are concerned about bathrooms, public transportation, the uptick in crime surrounding some of our NYSIF offices, and the barrage of health and safety issues that will result in an office setting due to mandated increased capacity, especially in public buildings.
“When you’re telecommuting, you have zero safety concerns,” she said. “Then all of a sudden you’re being thrown back into the office. It’s hard. NYSIF advised they feel that as we reintegrate back to a normal work environment and people get used to it, hopefully it will lessen concerns. We disagree.”
The alternatives and the hoops members jump through just to get a blanket denial are ridiculous, she said.
“We have a member with a wheelchair on oxygen and they’re giving him a hard time,” Czachorowski said. “There are people with serious health conditions and they say it’s a hardship to let them continue to telecommute. NYSIF’s ‘hardship’ claim is disingenuous. Telecommuting is not a hardship to our agency in any capacity, because if it were, you can bet we’d have heard about it.”
The praise throughout the pandemic was glowing. Members spend their days ensuring the health and safety of NYSIF policyholders, but the same agency they work for isn’t affording them those protections.
“NYSIF praised PEF members for their productivity, dedication and hard work while telecommuting over the past year and a half,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “So why is it now a hardship? We ask NYSIF to explain how our members diligently and productively working from home is suddenly a hardship to their agency.”
Read on for member stories of true hardship compared to the nebulous hardship NYSIF claims.