NYC’s mayor is backpedaling on his return-to-office demands because the city can’t fill enough jobs

Mayor Eric Adams speaks onstage as the Trust for Public Land celebrates 50 years of connecting everyone to the outdoors at Cipriani 25 Broadway on January 26, 2023 in New York City.
Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

New York City Mayor Eric Adams is reconsidering his requirement that city employees work in the office five days a week as jobs go unfilled.

“We are sending out a survey to our agencies, and we’re saying to our agencies, Come up with creative ways of having flexibility,” Adams said at a press conference on Tuesday. He was asked about the city’s work-from-home policy as some departments grapple with high vacancy rates.

The survey is a concession of sorts to the realities of a still-competitive labor market where the ability to work from home is table stakes for people who don’t need to be on site for their jobs. The lure to other, more flexible employers can be especially strong for city workers, whose salaries often don’t keep up with private sector pay. Hybrid work was highlighted as a key solution to agencies’ job vacancy crisis in a recent report by the Office of the New York City Comptroller.

Some agencies like the police and fire departments have seen an uptick in retirements, while others have experienced slow attrition. Two agencies Adams highlighted as recruitment priorities Tuesday include the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which manages the city’s affordable housing, and the Human Resources Administration, which provides social services.

In earlier times, city agencies could expect a steady stream of applicants, Adams said. Now, though, government agencies must compete for workers just like every other business. Part of that strategy involves rethinking the remote work policy, in addition to stepping up recruitment efforts. “There’s a pulse shift that you have to go out now and compete,” Adams said. 

Adams rolled out a five-day return-to-office mandate last June while also trying to convince the CEOs of companies like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase to bring their workers back to revive vacant Manhattan neighborhoods. “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day,” Adams said of the city’s remote workforce at an event last year.

Cracks in Adams’s resolve have also begun to show in recent union negotiations. SSEU Local 371, which represents some 20,000 city social service workers, has pushed the administration to allow remote work as part of their new contract.

The enduring popularity of working from home has emerged as an existential threat to cities, which depend on the income, sales and property tax revenues that vibrant downtowns provide.  Manhattan workers are spending at least $12.4 billion less a year due to about 30% fewer days in the office, according to a recent Bloomberg News analysis.

Though flexible work policies may be on the table, Adams has expressed concern about the equity implications for those whose jobs must be done in person. “You can’t have a dual employment system, when you have Black, Brown, low-income New Yorkers who are going into the office every day, and affluent, high-income New Yorkers are not going into the office,” Adams said in a Fox 5 interview in December. “We are going to be doing a survey of all our employees to say, ‘Give us your thoughts. But when you give us your thoughts, tell us how we can compensate for those people who can’t stay home.’”

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