On the Front Lines: New York
Our fourth installment of the On the Front Lines series brings us to New York.
On the Front Lines: New York
The Teachers Retirement System of the City of New York was in the storm path when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012. It had to vacate its headquarters in lower Manhattan for three months and operate out of backup facilities—initially in a double-wide trailer 50 miles away on Long Island and then in the borough of Queens, where more staff could be accommodated.
Lessons learned during that experience—and through earlier tragedies such as the 9/11 attacks on the United States—helped prepare TRS to adjust quickly to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Patricia Reilly, executive director of TRS.
“One lesson we learned from Hurricane Sandy was that it was hard to get everyone back to work because we had limited space in our disaster facility,” Reilly says. “We knew we had to have infrastructure for people to work from home, and we've been getting those capabilities in place and practicing them for the last several years.”
Another lesson: “The key is to be adaptable,” Reilly says. “You could have all the plans in the world but you can't foresee everything you're going to have to deal with.” In her case, one way of adapting was to send people out to procure laptops at Costco and Best Buy when a carefully planned order failed to arrive.
Soon after cases began to be diagnosed in the United States in late January, TRS began to implement restrictions. Any employee who had traveled outside the country was required to work from home for two weeks. The same rule applied to anyone who had been exposed to the virus.
By late February TRS had begun to plan for how to execute a possible large-scale shift to teleworking.
In mid-March, TRS decided to shut down its walk-in center, shifting communications to a myriad of other channels, including phone calls, emails and U.S. Mail. “We continued to operate and conduct business, but by March 14 we had decided we could no longer have visitors.”
But events were moving rapidly as diagnoses mounted. So later the same day, March 14, TRS made the decision to order all 600 employees to work at home effective the following Monday, March 16.
“Some of our call center people were equipped to take calls from home, but to expand that list we had to acquire equipment,” Reilly said, starting with a shipment of notebooks. TRS also started to pay parking fees for the limited employees who needed to come to the office so they could drive to work rather than ride on public transportation.
Reilly made her decision several days before Governor Andrew Cuomo handed down his statewide work-from-home order on March 20. One of the concerns she had was that in New York City, where Covid-19 cases were spreading rapidly, many workers were riding crowded buses and subways to work.
Having made the decision to keep people home, there were still arrangements to firm up, and some people did have to come to the office briefly. For example, a small number of employees who didn't have the necessary equipment came to work that Monday, and returned Tuesday to pick up laptops that were equipped for teleworking. All new equipment or supplies that are now being purchased are being delivered directly to staff and IT helps them with the setup over the phone.
Also, two mailroom managers had to come into the office for several days to open mail and scan documents, Reilly said. By the third week of March, TRS activated arrangements with two vendors to handle all the mail remotely, including scanning, printing, and delivering documents.
Member communication has been significant and steady, Reilly said. “We're constantly in contact with members. We have a Covid-19 page on website that gets updated as new info comes in, and we are sending out email blasts about the services we provide,” Reilly said. Call volume has actually been down, probably because “people have other things on their minds.”
It remains to be seen whether the bulge in retirement notices that usually occurs on July 1 each year will materialize in 2020, Reilly added. It is possible teachers may delay retirement decisions to give their investment portfolios time to bounce back.
Meanwhile, a certain amount of business as usual continues. For example, TRS has been in the midst of a major system development effort, and that work is moving forward. “Three shifts are continuing to work on that,” Reilly said.
She is already starting to glean the lessons from the Covid-19 crisis. One takeaway is that TRS's continuity of operations plan correctly anticipated that critical staff would need certain equipment, and the organization tested for that. But the staff dislocation due to Covid-19 was on a larger scale and that will require attention when TRS refreshes its disaster recovery and continuity of operations procedures.
Reilly credits a strong, motivated, and adaptable team for TRS's successes thus far in navigating the crisis. She makes a point of sending out weekly messages to thank her team, a move that she hopes “keeps everyone feeling motivated and appreciated.”
“You have to be set up with a plan in place,” Reilly said. “But after that, you have to agile and able to react quickly. You have to have a good team of people who can think on their feet.”