Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a coronavirus press conference on March 17. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and officials in her administration have said that city employees forced to miss work due to potential exposure to the novel coronavirus will receive a special form of pay known as “civil leave.” But some city employees say that they are not receiving pay or fear they won’t if they’re forced into isolation and can’t come into work. 

Of 10 employees who spoke to The Lens, five said they aren’t going into work because they are either showing symptoms of the coronavirus or believe they have been in contact with someone who tested positive. Three of those workers are on unpaid leave, while the other two are using sick days and vacation days. 

Several employees who spoke to The Lens said they were also alarmed by what they described as the slow pace at which the administration is allowing city employees to work from home. As of Tuesday evening, 80 percent of city employees were still required to come into their usual workplace, according to Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño. Five of the employees we interviewed said they are still going into the office, even though they believe it would be safer to work from home.

“I want to be actually following the suggestions and recommendations, and I’m not allowed to,” said one employee who works at City Hall. “Now I have to go back home to my child, my family and I’ve been in contact with all these people, therefore going against all the recommendations. It’s crazy.”

All of the city workers interviewed by The Lens spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retribution.

Their anxieties were compounded on Tuesday evening when Cantrell announced that the city is contemplating furloughs and layoffs for city employees due to anticipated tax shortfalls. Some said they’re now worried that they have to come into work to protect their jobs, even if it feels unsafe or goes against guidelines from city, state and federal health officials. 

The Cantrell administration has said that employees who need to quarantine because they are symptomatic or have been in contact with someone with the virus will receive civil leave pay. Civil leave is a form of paid leave, separate from sick or annual days off, that is sometimes used during disaster declarations or the suspension of normal operations due to health and safety concerns

“If there is some employee that is either affected or is in a close situation to someone who has been affected by the coronavirus, civil leave does apply,” Montaño said. “I sent a policy memo related to that.”

The administration sent the policy to The Lens. It states that departments that want to use civil leave need to make a request to Lisa Hudson, the personnel director at the Civil Service Department. 

“After the written notice has been received, employees who need to take time off from work due to illness or quarantine may be permitted by their appointing authority to use Civil Leave,” it says. 

But as of Wednesday morning, that doesn’t appear to be available at least for some city employees. Instead of getting civil leave, employees who can’t come into work are being forced to use sick or annual leave days. Employees without any leave days simply aren’t being paid. 

“Not really an option” 

Three employees who spoke to The Lens said they were currently staying home without pay due to the coronavirus. One of them was self-quarinting due to potential exposure to the virus; one was told not to come in by a superior due to recent travel; and one has asthma and recently went through cancer treatment, making her more vulnerable to the virus.   

All three said they were out of sick and annual leave days. 

“I’m currently recovering from major colon surgery and neuroendocrine cancer. I also have fairly severe asthma. Given this, I feel that I am a member of the at risk population,” the employee said in an email. “I feel like I’ve been handed a death sentence — go to work and contract a potentially fatal virus, or stay at home and don’t get paid. My husband works in the service industry, and his paycheck is already suffering for lack of hours. Staying home and not getting paid is not really an option if we want to be able to make our rent next month.”

Earlier this week, she was denied civil pay. The supervisor also said she could not work remotely. 

“We were initially informed by the city hall that civil leave would be used in this crisis,” a Tuesday email from the woman’s supervisor said. “That has changed and the city [is] not allowing civil leave at this time.”

“In the case of denial of civil leave, you should be aware that the decision was made at the city level, not by the library,” the supervisor said in a follow up email.

On Monday, another library worker was denied civil leave. “Staff who feel sick should use sick leave as needed, and staff who wish to use annual leave may also use it,” her superior said in an email. That worker had no annual or sick leave to use. 

In another Monday email to all Library staff, employees were told to stay home if they felt sick, but that it was still unclear whether they would be able to use civil leave. Library employees who spoke with The Lens said they would likely be relying on fellow employees donating leave days to those who need them. The Cantrell administration did not respond to follow up questions from The Lens

As of Wednesday morning, 257 people in Louisiana had tested positive for coronavirus, 187 of them in Orleans Parish. So far, seven people in Louisiana have died as a result of the virus, including six in New Orleans. The full extent of the virus’ spread is still unclear though. The state has only tested 634 people for the virus, but that doesn’t include commercial tests. 

Working from home

Along with civil leave, many employees are also struggling to get permission to work from home. Even as Cantrell orders social distancing and the closure of businesses and schools, 80 percent of city employees were still required to come into their workplace, Montaño said on Tuesday evening.

“It’s just been really surreal watching the mayor’s press conferences where she’s telling people to be personally responsible, practice social distancing, while she’s requiring us to come to the closed libraries,” a New Orleans Public Library employee said.

The administration has a plan in place to get more employees to work from home, and Montaño said he expected the number of people working from home to climb by the end of the week. 

“People are still coming into City Hall and we’re asked to meet with them which puts each of us at risk, having to be face to face with people,” said an employee who works inside City Hall. “It’s frightening. And then meeting with them and going home to our own families who we’re then exposing.”

The Cantrell administration has put limits on public access to City Hall. Only 25 people per floor are allowed in the building at once. And each visitor has to go through a body temperature reading to make sure they are under 100 degrees. 

A City Hall employee who has requested to work from home said it wasn’t just about health, but also dealing with practical challenges brought on by the virus, including childcare.

“I stayed home yesterday because my daughter is out of school. I used annual leave for that,” she said. “I only have so many annual days. I have 12 days of annual leave and I don’t know how many days of childcare to cover until schools open.”

Concerns for city workers were exacerbated on Tuesday evening, when Cantrell announced that her administration was working on a “cost reduction plan” for city spending that could include furloughs and layoffs for city workers. All the employees that spoke with The Lens said they didn’t know about the potential layoffs prior to the public announcement.

“Everything is on the table at this time. And that means, again, the employees that are currently working for the City of New Orleans,” Cantrell said. “The financial footing of this city is also the top priority. Because if we cannot operate, then that means basic city services will come to a screeching halt. And that’s something that I cannot and will not allow to happen.”

Employees seeking civil leave or permission to work from home told The Lens that the announcement put even more pressure on them to go into work, even if they feel it’s unsafe. 

“My assistant is at work and is literally in tears about this,” said one City Hall employee. “Texting with work friends that are all in panic mode. Feeling like we should be at work in case it helps us keep our jobs, meanwhile needing to stay home for various reasons.”

Employees have gotten the impression from the administration in recent days that they may be expected to prove their worth. On Monday, Library employees received an email from a regional library manager after meeting with Cantrell. 

“The mayor is not happy with the Library right now,” the email said. “Not happy with all the people who refused to come into work, the pushback on listing who is medically vulnerable, pushing to close. So we are going to have to have to prove our worth to the Mayor and the City by making a good faith effort to work and provide value.”

The email, first reported by WWLTV, came after library staff mounted a pressure campaign to get Cantrell to close the libraries to the public. Cantrell decided to do just that on Sunday. But, she was clear that library staff will still report to the libraries to work. She warned that they could, at some point, be “activated” for other city needs such as deep cleaning public facilities.

“We need to make a good faith effort to work and be busy, in case the Mayor or anyone from the CAOs office comes by, we need to be working on something, not surfing the net and watching netflix all day,” the email said. “But if the situation becomes dire, we may yet be required to clean.”

Library staff that spoke with The Lens said they didn’t quite know what they were supposed to be doing, given that the facilities are closed to the public. They told The Lens that they were fielding the occasional call, cleaning their workspaces with supplies brought from home and taking webinars. 

“There doesn’t seem like there’s anything we can do physically in that space that’s more important than what we could do at home, safely,” said a library employee who is showing symptoms of coronavirus and using sick leave to stay home. “There’s no reason for us to be in there right now.”

The employee also had questions about what Cantrell meant by “activating” the staff.

“I also really want to know what she means by ‘activating’ the library staff to help the community as if we’re the National Guard or FEMA,” she said. “I’m not a public health professional, I’m a freakin’ librarian.”

According to the email, the libraries could be activated as quarantine stations, daycare or “even field hospitals.”

All the employees said that one of the biggest problems right now is the lack of communication from the Cantrell administration down to city employees. Employees only found out about the potential layoffs, for example, during Tuesday evening’s press conference. 

“It just seems like we should, as people who work here in public service, be granted the courtesy of at least department heads being told first before we have to hear it basically on the street,” said a City Hall employee. “The general consensus is we’re not valued right now and at whatever expense we’ll keep things going. It’s just frightening. And then after the press release yesterday, not knowing if we’re going to even have a job. So now we’re being asked to be exposed and we might be facing layoffs or furloughs? We’re just not getting any information.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...