NEW YORK — Sanitation workers can’t work from home, Harry Nespoli likes to point out.
Nespoli is the head of the city sanitation department’s main union, the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, and for weeks he says he has been trying to get his members included in the state’s list of people eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Since last March, he said, 600 of the union’s 7,000 members have tested positive for the coronavirus and several have died. Nearly 200 are currently off work following positive tests.
Yet sanitation workers were not included alongside other “essential workers,” like in-person college instructors, grocery store workers and court officers, in the state’s latest phase of vaccine eligibility, despite the fact, Nespoli said, that they handle everyone’s trash, virus-free or not.
Now, five weeks into the state’s flawed and slow vaccine rollout, Nespoli is one of many leaders of unions, professional organizations and advocacy groups who are asking the state when their members will get the shot.
“If you don't bang on the door, they look the other way,” Nespoli said. “So I’m banging on the doors.”
Already 7 million New Yorkers are eligible to receive the vaccine, including all people aged 65 and older. As of Tuesday morning, the state had administered 920,000 total doses, representing three-fourths of all the doses it has received from the federal government.
The rollout has been widely criticized: It is complicated and time-consuming to make a vaccine appointment, and elderly people have reported receiving little help from city agencies in making appointments. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called on the state and federal government to give the city more vaccine doses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has criticized the city for its inefficient distribution of vaccines.
“Our singular goal is to get as many New Yorkers vaccinated as quickly as possible — but due to a lack of supply from the federal government, we have been forced to limit eligibility,” Jonah Bruno, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Health, said in an emailed statement. “While we understand these groups’ concerns and are sensitive to their requests, we are constrained until the Federal government steps up and provides more doses.”
Without a clear answer on who is next in line for eligibility, leaders of various organizations are scrambling to get on the phone with Cuomo, de Blasio and state legislators to plead their case.
The next phase of eligibility, 1c, is scheduled to begin in March or April, according to a New York City website. The city says that the phase will include “All other essential workers,” before adding, “to be determined by New York State.”
Critics have questioned the reasoning behind some of the state’s eligibility rules.
For instance, people who work in prisons are currently eligible to receive the vaccine, but not any of the state’s 34,000 prisoners. So far, 4,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and deaths are increasing rapidly, according to the Legal Aid Society.
That is a public health risk not just for inmates, but for communities around prisons and jails, said Stefen Short, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners' Rights Project.
“If we want to prevent spread in those settings and spread to corrections officers, and then spread to the surrounding communities, we need to vaccinate incarcerated people right now,” Short said.
Short said that the Legal Aid Society has repeatedly asked the governor’s office about the discrepancy but has received no response.
“I can only conclude that it's the lack of political will on the part of the governor that’s doing this,” Short said.
New York City officials who administer health care in city jails have also called on the state to expand eligibility for inmates. As of last week, the state had allowed them to give the vaccine to only 100 high-risk inmates so far, one official told City Limits.
There are other gaps that various professional organizations have pointed out. Public transportation workers are eligible but not taxi, livery cab or app-based drivers. Court officers are eligible but not judges.
“We are continuing to strongly advocate that the eligibility guidelines be immediately interpreted or expanded to include UCS Judges and Justices,” Lucian Chalfen, the director of information for the city’s Office of Court Administration, said in a statement. Of the city’s 700 judges, Chalfen said, the majority are under age 65.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, called taxi drivers’ exclusion from the eligibility rules “outrageous.”
“Drivers have been economically crushed by the impact of COVID, but also what we've seen is many drivers, when they've gone back to work, they've contracted COVID fairly early,” she said.
The worsening pandemic has made it much harder to raise public attention for the eligibility exclusion of taxi drivers, Desai said. Last September, the Alliance shut down Manhattan-bound traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in an effort to bring public awareness to their campaign for debt forgiveness on taxi medallion loan payments.
“We’re trying to figure out if there are alternative ways to get our word out, maybe through like a social media campaign,” Desai said. “We’re going to take an action. It's a matter of, do we hit the streets, physically.”
Other groups that have been seeking eligibility include food delivery people, city attorneys and desk clerks at museums and libraries.
De Blasio has publicly expressed support for certain groups seeking eligibility. At a press conference Tuesday, he noted the efforts of Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in stressing the importance of making employees in their offices eligible. The mayor also mentioned sanitation workers.
“We absolutely depend on them. They’ve been heroes throughout the pandemic,” de Blasio said. “You should have the right to be vaccinated. We need you on the job.”
It remains unclear what proportion of each group of workers will accept the vaccine if they are eligible. Polls have shown increasing interest among Americans in taking the vaccine. State officials said that nearly 30% of health workers refused the vaccine in the first weeks of its availability.
Nespoli, the head of the sanitation workers’ union, said that an initial internal poll conducted several weeks ago suggested that fewer than half the workers would take the vaccine. Yet lately, he said, more and more members have been asking when they can get the shot. He believes that the effect of seeing other people get the vaccine safely and without side effects is driving interest.
“All city workers that couldn't afford to stay home and work their job over the computer, the ones that had to actually use the train during the height of it -- they should get this,” Nespoli said. “We kept the city going.”