Building staffs have been on the front lines during the pandemic, keeping buildings functioning and safe. Plans had to be made for coverage in the case of illness, there was a constant need for communication as the early pandemic days unfolded, and both management and residents realized how reliant they are on these workers. Drawing from nine roundtable discussions, we highlight the challenges both workers and management faced as they dealt with this unprecedented event.
Building staffs are on the front lines. If staff members become ill, day-to-day building operations are severely affected. How did you deal with this?
Brian ScallyIn every building, if one of the employees got sick, we had to worry about quarantining that employee, and possibly quarantining the rest of the staff as well. So we had buildings where three or four staff members had to be removed from the building and quarantined for two weeks for their safety and the safety of our residents. Then we brought in temporary employees.
Gustavo Rusconi Similarly, we had a number of temporary employees that were pre-screened and pre-approved, so that we could allocate them to buildings in the event that our staff members fell ill and could not report to work. That worked out very well for us.
Neil DavidowitzWe were concerned early on. We had to do early planning for how we were going to staff the buildings because we were really concerned about huge losses of people getting sick or not being able to come in. We didn’t even know if they'd be defined as “essential workers.” We had to go into a crisis mode, almost a strike kind of mentality, assuming we would not have the staff and figuring out how we were going to service the building. We lined up outside security companies to step in if we lost concierges and doormen. We lined up outside cleaning services to step in and handle the cleaning and sanitation obligations. As the situation manifested itself, thank God, we only had to utilize those in a handful of the 170 buildings we manage.
Howard Landman By March 15th, we had two buildings where both of the supers got sick. Both were out for almost three weeks. We were short-handed, but we were able to get through it.
Scally I asked all of our supers to go around the corner to get to know one another and get to know other buildings so they could step in if [one of our supers became ill and] there was an emergency.
Rusconi We work with the Realty Advisory Board, as well as with the 32BJ employees’ union. As you know, a lot of the commercial buildings shut down. There were a lot of porters and handymen on the commercial side that were furloughed or laid off, so we were able to tap into that labor force to also add to our temporary employees, to supplement the buildings where staff became ill or could not report to work, and in some cases were afraid to report to work. So that was very helpful.
Were staff afraid to come into the buildings?
RusconiWe had some staff members that at first took time off; some used vacation time. I know 32BJ employees could take up to two weeks. However, afterward, with a lot of coaching, a lot of help, not only from the property managers but from the supers, they returned to work. We made sure that everyone had proper personal protective equipment and was properly trained to perform the work.
Alvin Wasserman We have a large number of field employees – people on my staff, people who have to work at the properties – and 10% of them got the COVID virus. During that period, I was dealing with crisis management, crisis intervention, keeping up with the laws, keeping up with how we pay the workers and how we have to document it. How long do they have to be out of work? What kind of documentation do they have to provide us? Did they go for testing? What results did they get? I was working seven days a week, 10, 12 hours a day for the first month of this crisis.
What are you doing to keep building staff healthy?
Steven Furman If you want to keep your staff healthy, you have to [clean] their locker rooms, the common areas – wherever they congregate to make sure that it's cleaned and sanitized and disinfected routinely to prevent transmission of the virus. It's labor-intensive, and certainly it's going to have a financial impact on each building. You're going to spend on masks, gloves, sanitizer. You're going to spend $20,000 to $50,000 more, I would say, per building.
Andrew Lazarus Buildings are evaluating their staffing requirements, depending on the size of the common areas, the amenities and the cleaning schedule each building wants to adopt. Every building is different. We have some buildings that need to change staffing schedules, and some buildings that are bringing in additional staff, because they didn't have the right staff coverage to do the scope of cleaning that they think is needed.
FurmanWe're managing a health crisis, and we're managing risk that we've never envisioned. It’s a life-and-death situation. We've had some fatalities in our buildings. We've had our staff members get sick. We've lost some of our staff members and residents. Every building is different. Every community is different. People have a different age makeup in the building.
Michael Rogoff We were surprised by our staff, but in a very positive way. Everyone came together on this one. Everyone stepped up, from the board and the employees to corporate property managers and professionals in the industry.
ScallyI have to say, all of our supers and staff members just kept going. They jumped right in. They handled this thing basically without fear. They didn't say, “It's not my job.” They just went ahead and kept working, and they handled issues. If we had somebody in the building who had COVID, the staff followed the protocols, and we put out information to the residents on how to handle the situation, along with our staff. So I think the information provided between the staff and the residents and our boards was the most important piece of it.
Has the pandemic increased the need to communicate to building staff? And if so, what is the type of communication you’re doing?
ScallyIt's constant encouragement, thanking the staff members, and telling them, "You guys are doing a great job. We really appreciate everything you've done.” As long as we're talking and working together as a team, communication is the most important thing. We use a robocall system. Every Monday and Wednesday and Friday, I do either a Zoom call or a conference call with my managers, my supers, even my residents. We'll post stuff on our website as we get information and disseminate it to everybody as quickly as we learn it. It changes almost on a day-to-day basis.
AJ RexhepiThe key in situations like this is keeping the supers and resident managers abreast of everything that is going on, making them feel like they’re part of the team. And that can’t happen just by email or a phone call. They have to see a face. I think that things like FaceTime and Google Meets are key in making the staff feel like they're not alone. Because these guys jumped in front of the line and they didn't stop. I have supers that literally put on PPE, put on the spray guns, and they disinfected the buildings and elevators on their own, every day, without any sort of hesitation.
Ira MeisterWe do regular virtual meetings with the boards. We do it with the building staff, too, so they have a constant channel, very back and forth. People can email you to death, but rather than having to live in email hell, you set up Zoom chats with the boards, the resident manager/superintendent, so we're all on the same page. That's key.
RusconiThe residents have been great with the staff. The relationship between staff and residents has strengthened many times over. The building staff has gone above and beyond to help residents in their daily lives, whether it's to bring packages or groceries, or to help those that had to quarantine at home. They have followed up, they have checked in on the residents to make sure they're OK, and that relationship grows stronger every day.
After the pandemic has passed and things have gone quote, unquote, back to normal, what will change in the running of buildings?
Furman[The super and the staff are] going to have to be more accountable because of the safety plans and the requirements of contractors working in apartments. Our staff are going to have to check on a daily basis and make sure that they're cleaning and sanitizing, that they're keeping their screening log. So, whereas in the past, the building staff might periodically check on a renovation once a week, or take it for granted that the contractors are doing what they're supposed to do, the building staff will now have to keep tighter controls.
RexhepiThe staff is going to take much more care, even when the COVID pandemic is over, in how they protect themselves and the residents when they enter apartments. Everybody's going to have protocols in place, and that's evident with the safety plans that the city has put out for all of us to fill out, not just on the management side and the building side, but also on the vendor side. So I think that, even if there isn't a second wave, the remnants of this pandemic will be felt for a very, very long time.