National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems

The Voice for Public Pensions


Fast Forward on the Front Lines: New York City

Covid-19 isn't an abstraction to Patricia Reilly, executive director of the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York. She has lost two staff members to the illness.

Fast Forward on the Front Lines: New York City

Covid-19 isn't an abstraction to Patricia Reilly, executive director of the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York. She has lost two staff members to the illness.

So as Reilly oversees the gradual reopening of the system's lower Manhattan offices, she is paying close attention to employees' health. She expects to have a full team back in the work place by the end of 2021. There are extensive precautions in place to limit contagion, including personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer stations, and limits on the number of people who can be in a room.

“I'm not worried about people being in the office,” Reilly says. “But they have to get on very crowded trains and buses to get here.”

The risks are real in a city where most people commute via crowded public transit. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 55.6 percent of workers in New York City commuted by some form of public transportation in 2019, far above the national average of 5 percent.

Reilly has a team of 340 employees who serve 200,000 members. In the office, vaccinated employees don't have to wear a mask at their desk, but they are required to put it in common areas. Non-vaccinated employees need to wear masks at all times and have a weekly Covid test. Tests are available to city workers and the general public at city-run sites, private walk-in clinics and many other locales for free to the person being tested.

The system's offices in lower Manhattan were never empty during the pandemic. Mail had to be processed, and the accounting department had to come in every two weeks. Throughout the summer and fall of 2021, cohorts of workers began returning in stages, initially for a day a week.

Remote working has been a roaring success, Reilly says. “We were actually more productive working from home. The number of death benefits we processed was higher than before. The number of retirements we processed was on par. Loans got out the door and were processed within the normal window, even while many changes were being made under the CARES Act,” as the omnibus Covid-19 relief legislation was known.

She is clearly proud of her team. Throughout the pandemic, “our people got up, got online and started working,” Reilly says. Employees from the city's outer boroughs—Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx—particularly benefited. Their journeys to lower Manhattan can stretch to an hour or more each way, and “some of their commute time translated into work time.”

The system has served members throughout the pandemic by moving to more electronic delivery of services. Any process can be performed online using smart forms. Reilly is particularly pleased with what remote technology has meant for member education. “Before, we could only do so much member education and only have 30 to 40 people in the room. Now we've done member education for thousands of people who now get on a Zoom session, so we are able to service a lot more of our members.”

Still, there are some members who prefer face-to-face meetings, particularly as retirement approaches, and the system accommodates them.

“It's almost a rite of passage for them. We take the retirement paperwork they need to submit to Department of Labor Relations and the Department of Education. It's one-stop shopping for them,” Reilly says. Plus, retirees by definition skew older, and tend to be less tech-savvy and require more handholding, she adds. In-person meetings can be scheduled. Unscheduled visitors currently aren't permitted, except to use a drop box in the entrance. 

Reilly wants to find the balance between delivering the personalized service members expect and accommodating a staff that has proved that working remotely does not equal being absent. She says competitive pressures must be factored in as pension systems weigh how to proceed, because research is showing that people are leaving organizations that will not allow remote or hybrid work. “If people can get a job where they can get a lot more flexibility, they'll leave,” she says.

Going forward, “I would like us to be a much more flexible agency,” Reilly says. “Of course, you have to monitor for abuse, but our people have shown in the last year and a half that they can get the jobs done and that they care about the quality of their work.”

While the benefits of remote work for employees are pretty evident, employers get something out of it too, she says.

First, Reilly notes, it's good for employee relations, because when people appreciate their employer, they work harder. Second, it reduces lost productivity; for example, parents might want to work remotely rather than take time off to stay home with their kids during school breaks. Third, allowing remote work is a way of constantly testing the organization's ability to shift offsite when an emergency necessitates it.  

Covid-19 has certainly proved one thing, Reilly says: “If something like this happens again, it won't be a heavy lift to move to remote working.”
You might also like: On the Front Lines: New York; Fast Forward on the Front Lines: Washington; Fast Forward on the Front Lines: Minnesota.



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