President Joseph A. Colangelo
The last four weeks have seemed like a huge blur. One hour has blended into the next and one day has seemed like any other. It’s been hard to tell a week day from a weekend. Where we once were reading about a virus that took over people’s lives in China and Italy, we are now living it ourselves. Somehow, I guess the United States just thought the coronavirus just wasn’t going to work its way over here.
And then it did. Slowly at first. One person. Two people. Then four. The number of those testing positive for the coronavirus was escalating faster than anyone could have imagined and mass panic was setting in. New Yorkers were flocking to the stores and stockpiling groceries, water, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (that one had most people stumped). Before we knew it, everyone seemed to know someone who had tested positive. This coronavirus pandemic we are all now living through has changed the lives of so many people.
Then it hit home personally at Local 246 when we got the devastating news that one of our own brothers had passed away from the coronavirus, COVID-19. How do I even begin to express our deep sorrow at the loss of FDNY Auto Mechanic James (Jimmy) Villecco who left behind his wife Joy and daughter Jessica. Jimmy was both respected by his coworkers and loved by his family and friends. As soon as we posted about his passing on our Facebook page, hundreds of comments appeared on the post that reached more than 10,000. This goes to show what a truly amazing guy Jimmy was and how much he will be missed.
By now, each of us most likely knows at least one person who has either tested positive or sadly, will lose their fight with this horrible plague. While all our members in every one of our titles know that we provide critical support to agencies like NYPD, FDNY, DSNY, DEP, DOT, DOE, CUNY, H+H, DOH, and more, which of course makes us essential City workers, it’s a hard pill to swallow in times like these.
The “stay-at-home” mandate does not apply to essential workers. We are needed on the job every day to make sure the City’s massive fleet of emergency vehicles is operational at all times so our First Responders can get to New Yorkers in need. And right now, there are more than the average number of New Yorkers in need. Our members have dutifully shown up for work — masked and gloved — to do their jobs. This continues to show our dedication and commitment to our jobs, something I have pointed out time and time again.
In fact, this is not the first crisis we have shown up in, either. Our members came to work in Superstorm Sandy. We came to work during 9/11. We came to work during the major blackout. Where were all the private companies during this time? Certainly not at work repairing City vehicles.
All municipal employees who work for the City of New York are facing similar challenges to those of our members. The stress on us and our families is real. It’s not only physical stress; it’s the mental stress as well. This is a scary time as we are living in unchartered waters. Information changes from one minute to the next. The streets of New York City are eerily silent. The economy is in flux as the stock market rises and falls hourly. New York City, already famous for being the city that never sleeps, is now just as notorious for being the epicenter of the coronavirus.
We have heard from many members about how anxious they are working in such close quarters with fellow co-workers. We hear you and we completely understand. We are taking each of your situations on a case-by-case basis and discussing them individually as all circumstances are different. The Local 246 Executive Board is working with all the Shop Stewards to make sure all our members have adequate personal protective equipment — gloves, masks, face shields — and cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer while on the job. These items have been scarce during the pandemic, even at medical facilities and hospitals. If you are missing PPEs, please let us know. I have been in touch with Commissioners to make sure our members all have what you need to do your jobs as safely as possible and have expressed these concerns numerous times.
More than a month into the pandemic, with at least another month to go, the stress we are all feeling is felt by everyone across the board, from small business owners who have had to close their doors, to grocery store clerks being yelled at by angry customers, and taxi cab drivers being coughed on by riders to EMTs, paramedics, doctors and nurses working around the clock caring for the sick and dying. No one, absolutely no one, is able to escape COVID-19.
That includes the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers facing unemployment. On April 6, I was part of a conference call with the New York City Central Labor Council’s Executive Board and we were discussing some statistics provided recently by the New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. In recent weeks, the State’s Unemployment Insurance filing system has faced an unprecedented increase in volume, including a 16,000% increase in phone calls and a nearly 900% increase in web traffic, compared to a typical week. Those percentages are staggering!
We are at definitely at war here — with a virus. A virus that does not differentiate based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, we are all equally susceptible to COVID-19. If anything good has come out of this pandemic, it is that so many people and businesses and organizations are all stepping up to the plate, side by side, to try and help. Everyone wants to do what they can to stop what seems like the never-ending spiral of the coronavirus pandemic so we can get back to the “normal” lives we had in January. For Jimmy Villecco, it’s too late. But for those of us who have averted the virus, maybe it’s time to take a look at what we considered “normal” and rethink that. When life settles back down, it would be great if we could all do something individually in memory of Jimmy as a tribute to a great man who spent weeks prior to his own death posting on his Facebook page about the dangers of the coronavirus and warning others to stay alert and be safe.