When it came to staffing, my 20-unit Lower Manhattan co-op has managed to get by for almost 45 years just with a full-time super and a part-time porter. Vacations and sick days were covered by a patchwork of job-sharing between the pair, asking past employees to pinch hit for a few hours and canvassing supers in neighboring buildings to find someone willing to sub in.
Then our luck ran out.
Our super and the porter tested positive for COVID-19 on the same day. Both had mild symptoms, but neither could cover for the other during their quarantine period. On such short notice, the usual backups were unavailable and in understaffed, not-quite post-pandemic New York, our managing agent could find no replacements.
Our board turned to its last resort: the shareholders.
The most pressing need was finding volunteers to take out the garbage. For a small building, we generate a lot of trash. According to house rules, we’re supposed to tie up garbage bags and rinse and sort our recyclables in our apartments before putting them in the appropriate covered bins in the ground floor garbage room. During ordinary weekends, when the super and porter are off, the bins are often filled beyond capacity. Occasionally, by Sunday night in the summer, the resulting stink can leak into the lobby, making coming and going especially unpleasant. With both of our employees out sick, we were likely to get to that state no later than Wednesday.
The board sent out an email to shareholders asking for help. The first replies came quickly — not with offers to volunteer but, rather, with suggestions that the quarantine time for the super and porter should extend well beyond CDC guidelines “out of an abundance of caution.” Never mind that in the past two years most of us have already been exposed to or infected by the virus or have exposed or infected someone else. And never mind that the same people now asking for the staff to stay away were the same ones who hightailed it out of the city in the dark early days of the pandemic — but expected the super and porter to stay away.
After a few days, more helpful replies followed. Three shareholders stepped up for garbage duty. And they got more than they volunteered for. The job was described as tying up and taking the large liners out of the community bins and carrying them 10 steps outside to the curb three times a week. And it should have been that simple. But after their first night, volunteers sent an email to all shareholders describing the same mess our super faced. And it generated the same response: It wasn’t me.
Eventually, many of us began taking extra care with garbage and recyclables. In addition, large deliveries were postponed because none of us knew how to put up the protective pads in our one wonky elevator. People began putting unwanted catalogs and campaign flyers directly into the recycling bin rather than tossing them on the mailroom shelf. One shareholder even piled the ever-growing stacks of boxes and packages accumulating in our lobby onto a luggage cart and went floor to floor delivering them like Santa Claus.
Having our super and porter back and in good health was a relief. It’s too soon to know if we’ve learned our lesson. In my building, where charm and character are supposed to make up for the lack of amenities, it turns out that because our limited services are performed predictably well by people we trust, we have the luxury of comfort and security. And while we don’t have a deep bench of pinch hitters, it’s good to know we can add ourselves to the roster in a pinch.