Parks face maintenance staff shortage ahead of summer

Last summer, city parks were teeming with maintenance crews as New Yorkers flocked to green spaces after a long pandemic winter.

The Parks Department was able to hire about 3,500 workers, their salaries paid with a one-time infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funds, to pick up litter and protect greenery amid another spring awakening under the City program. Cleanup Body.

Now, 1,800 federally funded workers remain, after about half of the original team left their jobs.

With fewer workers, the department projects that at the July peak of the peak season for park use — with lawns, trails, beaches and pools in daily use — there will be 259 fewer cleaning workers. than last year.

Additionally, by the end of the season, without additional funding, these workers will also face a severe bottleneck to staying employed: only 400 of the maintenance workers could get permanent jobs in the department.

In the final weeks of budget negotiations, city council members and union leaders are trying to urge Mayor Eric Adams’ administration to add millions more in funding to cover maintenance work.

They’re pushing him to honor a campaign promise to fund the parks department 1% of the city’s total budget, which would nearly double his last $600 million proposal, or $20 million less than the city’s spending. ‘last year. Adams called the figure a “down payment” on larger funding.

Parks advocates say that without full funding, the relative decline in park conservation will hit marginalized neighborhoods the hardest.

“There are huge inequities in green space and the upkeep of green space in our city,” Councilman Shekar Krishnan, who chairs the parks committee, said Thursday. “We need to see a continuation of all the positions we’ve had so far.”

At a city council budget hearing on Friday, Krishnan and other members questioned Parks Department officials about maintenance levels and job opportunities for cleaners. The hearing comes about six weeks after the deadline for passing the city’s budget.

Overall, the city says it expects to have 4,431 maintenance workers at the height of the summer season, up from 4,690 last year.

That represents a “minimal decrease” overall, department spokeswoman Megan Moriarty said in an emailed statement. She added that Adams’ latest spending plan adds new funding to support the 400 permanent, year-round maintenance positions that Cleanup Corps workers can apply for.

“This will allow for a more stable workforce with the ability for more staff to be dedicated to a single location rather than relying on mobile teams,” Moriarty said.

Still, the projected drop in maintenance crews will hit some boroughs harder than others, according to figures provided by the parks department.

Last July, the Bronx had 1,047 workers. This year, it will see a drop of 225 positions, to 822.

Brooklyn sees its total number of maintenance workers increase by 10, while Manhattan will have two more.

The department said it allocates maintenance crews based on both foot traffic and a list of city neighborhoods that have suffered the greatest impact from the pandemic.

Without additional funding, according to the Parks Department, the disparity in cleanup crews from last year will only grow in the fall, with headcount down nearly 900 positions in November and December from last year. same period in 2021.

Still, Sue Donoghue, the parks commissioner, told Friday’s hearing that the loss of hundreds of workers will not affect the conditions of the city’s green spaces.

“We don’t anticipate any negative impact,” Donoghue said. “Although there is no doubt that these workers are important to us.”

Adam Ganser, executive director of advocacy group New Yorkers For Parks, said in an interview ahead of the hearing that rising and falling staff numbers can make residents uncertain about the attention being given to their green spaces and impose unexpected charges. workers.

“That yo-yo effect really puts a strain on the park department staff themselves,” Ganser said. “If our parks look like they’re in terrible shape, that really reflects badly on the city as a whole, and people are starting to feel insecure about their lives in the parks.”

The workers facing job loss are the lowest paid in the union that represents them, Local 983, according to union president Joe Puleo. Many workers, who earn minimum wage, have turned to jobs after being laid off during the pandemic.

“These are the people who need these jobs the most,” Puleo said. “It’s the difference between paying their rent and not paying their rent, or getting food.”

Puleo estimated the city could hire the entire Cleanup Corps group for around $40 million.

“As far as the city budget goes, it would be like a penny in your pocket,” he said.

These job losses will not be complete until the end of the summer season, as the Parks Department paid to extend its contracts after April when federal funds ran out, until September 15, when the high season ended. season.

Park Department chief financial officer David Stark told the council hearing that only a small portion of seasonal hires compete for full-time jobs, and the Cleanup Corps is seeing steady attrition of around 100 people per month. . Still, he pointed out that there was still no guarantee of continued work for most Cleanup Corps workers.

“There is no straight transition from a seasonal line to a full-time line without an interview process,” Stark said during the hearing.

Still, he said, competition for open permanent positions will be tough.

“We don’t want people leaving who want to stay in the parks,” Stark said. “But at some point there will be limits.”

Stark said workers who don’t get roles will be eligible for department-run training programs that aim to place workers in full-time positions with the city’s public housing agency or schools, often working in the restaurant business.

However, giving these workers full-time positions in the park service would put them on track to become park supervisors after several years and several exams — roles that pay an annual salary of around $100,000.

“There is a serious disparity there,” Krishnan told the hearing. “It will have a direct impact on the workers who depend on these positions, on their families.”

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