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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

People Protections

Buildings staffs have been classified by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as essential personnel – one property manager has likened them to first responders – and it has never been more important to communicate with them.
“I stay in daily contact with them, and they seem to be holding up and doing whatever they need to do,” says Angela Hirsch, president of the seven-member board at the Saxony, a 100-unit co-op in Forest Hills, Queens. “They’re very concerned about everybody here and everything that’s going on. I just hope they don’t end up getting a nervous breakdown over this. I feel very bad for them.”

Josh Blackman, the founder and chief executive of Brownstone Property Group, also stresses the importance of communicating with the troops. “Reach out to them and say: ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you feeling well? Do you feel safe in your environment? If not, what can we do to make it better?’” he advises. “Find out how your people are doing, and make sure you have backups in place in case they get ill, because some basic things still need to happen. We need to keep the building clean, and if there’s a pipe leaking, we have to stop that leak. If your people can’t do it, talk to your managing agent so we can bring somebody in to take care of it.”
What if members of your staff become sick or are otherwise unable to come to work? The first step is to seek temporary fill-ins. “If one building is short, workers from another building can cover,” says Michael Rogoff, the president of AKAM Associates, which manages buildings with a total of some 2,500 staffers. “Or for nonunion buildings where it’s permitted, we go to some form of staffing company or security-guard company.”
The Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ, which represents building staffers, has been helping. The union has been playing “an incredibly active role” in helping to troubleshoot issues, says Erica Buckley, the head of the cooperative and condominium practice at the law firm Nixon Peabody. The Realty Advisory Board’s website has a list of contractors who can provide short-term workers for buildings that become short-staffed.
Meanwhile, the Realty Advisory Board and 32BJ have entered into a memorandum of agreement effective to June 11, with extensions possible. This agreement allows co-op and condo boards with reduced staff needs to sign on to the state’s Shared Work Program. Boards can reduce an employee’s hours –and pay – by 20 to 60 percent a week, and employees can recoup their lost pay through state unemployment benefits, as well as an extra $600 a week through the federal CARES Act.
On April 12, Gov. Cuomo signed an executive order that all employers in the state must provide workers with masks. Many boards were already supplying their staffs with masks, gloves, disinfectant and even protective goggles. And the precautions don’t stop there. “I’ve been seeing buildings take their doorman and put that person further back into the lobby, in a cordoned-off area,” says Gustavo Rusconi, director of management operations at Argo Real Estate. “They can still maintain security and provide service, but at a safe distance.”
Andy Leight, the senior vice president for operations at AKAM, notes that some contractors, such as plumbing companies, are housing and feeding some of their own staff in their offices or elsewhere nearby in order to have them on hand for emergencies – and to minimize exposure to the coronavirus from commuting.
Rogoff says good managers will have instituted contingency plans for keeping the building running in three possible situations – “with limited staff; with minimal staff, meaning only two or three people when a building might have 15 or 20; and with little or no staff. That’s when the resident volunteers would kick in.”

Reinforcements from Within
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In years past, strikes by unionized building staffers have pushed many boards and managers to enlist residents to perform necessary functions that keep the building operating. Managers and attorneys offer specific steps and precautions should volunteers become necessary.
“The first call should be to the insurance company to make sure what the liability policy covers and what it doesn’t,” says Ruben Ravago, an attorney at Nixon Peabody. “The second order of business is to make sure everybody understands what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe. Somebody who’s not, perhaps, able to lift heavy objects shouldn’t be asked to take out the garbage. Match people to the jobs they’re reasonably suited to do, whether physically or temperamentally.”
Volunteers also need instruction in how to perform assigned tasks, which remaining staff or management can facilitate either in person or remotely. That doesn’t mean a volunteer should be working on the boiler – some things require special training and expertise. Julie Zuraw, the chief operating officer at Argo, strongly advises against even a resident who is an engineer trying to fix a burner that isn’t firing or a trash compactor that’s stuck. “No, honestly no,” she says, adding that boards should call their manager to locate skilled emergency workers. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Lighten the Volunteers Load
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Volunteers need support. “Don’t assume every resident who might volunteer would know every other resident,” says Leight of AKAM, which distributed about 80,000 ID cards to its buildings, to help volunteer doormen, if needed. “It allows people to go in and out but also makes the job of the volunteer much easier.” The cards took only about 36 hours to get made, he says, so it’s a manageable task.
Many boards and their volunteers have made an extra effort to look after their most vulnerable residents – the elderly, the disabled or those with respiratory problems that make them especially susceptible to the coronavirus.
“I’ve seen residents band together and check in on our neighbors, ask them if they need anything,” says Rusconi of Argo. At the 84-unit Belvedere co-op in Jackson Heights, Queens, a tenant is self-quarantined.

“The board has been buying groceries, and the staff has been pitching in, calling two, three times a day to make sure the person is OK,” Rusconi says. “In difficult times, I think you see the best in us. And I’ve seen that in a number of buildings.”
At the Saxony, Hirsch, the board president, says: “We have had in place for many years a contact list for all residents, part of our annual apartment checklist to see if there was anybody who has any disabilities or difficulties. So we are aware of everyone in our building that could possibly have issues, and our staff is aware of this. And they certainly have gone above and beyond in keeping an eye on people.”

Many boards have taken steps to protect all residents and staffers – not just those at a higher risk of infection. To this end, they have limited the number of people in an elevator – just one person or family at a time. Move-ins, move-outs, and furniture disposal are generally not being allowed. Understandably, gyms are closed, but laundry rooms are open. Residents may be asked to pick up food, medication and other deliveries in the lobby or vestibule, to prevent delivery people from walking through the building. Child-care workers are allowed, but most apartment alterations and construction projects have been put on hold.
“It’s really just making sure everyone’s practicing social distancing, putting sanitizing stations in lobbies, exercising due diligence in terms of disinfecting the buildings and heavily touched surfaces,” says Buckley, the attorney. “Some buildings have toothpicks and Popsicle sticks by elevators so that buttons don’t have to be touched.” God is in the details, never more so than during a pandemic.

“This is long-term,” Hirsch says. “Most of us are self-isolating, and so far everybody’s hanging in there. But how long can everybody hang in there without going stir-crazy? That’s the problem.”
Managers can help by reassuring nervous boards and residents that the building has risen to the challenges. “You build on each success,” Rusconi says. “It’s almost like a sports team – you give them pep talks. I tell them: ‘Look, I’m here with you. We’re going to get through this. Look at what we’ve done the last couple of weeks – everything was successful.’ And you sort of try to calm them down and keep them focused on the task at hand.”
“People are scared,” Rogoff adds. “It’s a scary time. But you know, fear and panic, although they are human emotions, they don’t really accomplish anything. So we’re trying to work together for a common goal and provide practical solutions. And if something pops up that was unexpected, we work together to figure out the best way to solve it.”
Which brings us back to the employees – the doormen, supers, porters and handymen – who are keeping the city’s co-ops and condos functioning in these traumatic times. “Building staffs are the unsung heroes of this pandemic,” says Peter von Simson, the chief executive at New Bedford Management. “They didn’t sign up for this, and I think the risks they’re taking are heroic. While people are hunkered down in their apartments, these guys are cleaning the building – halls, elevator buttons, doorknobs – and they’re carrying out the garbage. They’re not hazmat trained, but they’re showing up. I have not heard one building staffer or vendor say they’re not going to work. I certainly hope people start to appreciate how hard these men and women work. They’re almost like first responders.” And now, a suggestion.
“Nobody’s planning a parade for building staffs,” von Simson says. “Maybe they should.”

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