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Four City Workers Describe How Budget Cuts Impact the Public Services They Provide

Issue 287

We hear from anonymous workers at the Parks Department, Health + Hospitals, Housing, and the mayor's office.

By Indypendent Staff May 17

Since 2022, the Adams administration has imposed multiple budget cuts on all city departments except the NYPD and the Department of Corrections. In June the Mayor and the City Council will complete negotiations on next year’s city budget.

We’ve heard from city workers who described the devastating impact of previous austerity budgets amid concerns that another round of spending cuts will further degrade essential public services. We’ve withheld their names to protect them from retaliation. 

PARKS

I work for the City Parks Department in urban ecology, maintaining tree canopies and other natural areas in the large parks on the edges of the five boroughs. 

Our work feels like an invisibilized essential service — yet we maintain the lungs of the city. In this urban environment, trees regulate the temperature, purify the air and maintain livable space. It’s something that my coworkers and I take pride in. 

During nearly five years with Parks, I have benefitted from raises, more job responsibilities and creative freedoms. But I’ve also been a seasonal employee the whole time, which means my job depends on the budget and a city council vote. We experience constant job insecurity, and we find out only two or three weeks before the fiscal year ends whether or not we will be able to keep our positions. 

This makes planning life difficult, whether it’s signing a new lease, wanting to start a family or wanting to engage in anything that’s costly — like taking a trip to visit family. Someone already lost their whole crew to other jobs as a result of foreseeable income loss. We had to start from scratch training and building a team. Backfilling those positions can take months, if it happens at all. 

This year is particularly stressful, because back in November we were told my program might lose funding when Mayor Eric Adams threatened implementing across-the-board 15% budget cuts over the fiscal year — 5% three times — the worst the city has seen since the 1970s. He hasn’t fully enacted the cuts yet, so we’ve been uneasy ever since, wondering what’s gonna happen come June when the Mayor and City Council negotiate next year’s annual city budget. 

City employment is touted as a stable means of supporting a family. But there is a notable work-around — the lack of opportunities for permanent positions.

The City will hire non-union contractors instead of its own employees. The Parks Department hires many people under seasonal or temp positions that can’t really be considered reliable or “good union jobs.” It takes time to earn paid holidays, healthcare and sickdays.

There are around 25 employees in my department, and about 20 of us are on the seasonal lines. Almost all of the park rangers are also seasonal lines, and many of those who do public outreach at events are as well. 

We also have the Parks Opportunity Program, which hires people to maintain the parks; they say it’s a job opportunity for low-income and previously incarcerated New Yorkers. These are some of the lowest-paid workers at Parks. Their jobs are only six-month contracts, always ending before they gain access to full benefits! 

Expanding the city’s tree canopy is long-term work. To put it simply, trees don’t mature in a year; they require maintenance to get to the point where they really benefit the city.

The short-sighted funding of our job makes planning difficult because we don’t know if there will be employees to maintain current projects or to carry out future ones. Just the other day I was with a team that did a beautiful planting, but there was tangible tension in the air: We don’t know if the new plants will be able to flourish with proper care — or if they will become unattended, overgrown by vines. 

Think about a patch of sidewalk in the city with no trees versus another one with old sycamores and oaks lining the streets. The temperature could be 10 to 15 degrees cooler on the tree-lined block. That feeling on a hot summer day when you walk into a park under the shade of trees and immediately feel the temperature shift — that’s what we’re trying to maintain and bolster. 

Even if there isn’t a patch of trees right next to your house, plant growth affects the air and temperature of the city overall, the amount of water that gets absorbed when it rains, the wildlife and pollinators — the ecosystem as a whole — which, as urban as we are here in New York City, we are definitely are a part of. 

Our parks are a health service; they have economic value, raising the price of nearby real estate. They also absorb water: Areas that lack parks and trees are more likely to see infrastructure damage and basement flooding when there is a storm. 

Imagine if we actually funded these programs more and developed more urban canopy in the city. Imagine if we had several crews in every borough that educated the public about the trees in the area and the ecology around them that serves us. Imagine if we had the manpower to ensure the longevity of the trees here and create a better canopy; we would be a more climate-resilient city. 

Imagine if we included the economic benefits of our forests and natural areas when considering the budget. 

HEALTH + HOSPITALS 

As a medical trainee, I find myself confronted with the stark reality of our underfunded healthcare system in New York City. “Why is [SUNY Downstate Hospital] shutting down? I do not know where to take my kids. I’ve been going there for years,” one of my patients said as I was documenting our visit. My patient’s distress over the shutdown of Downstate, a facility they’ve relied on for years, echoes the sentiments of many in our community. The root of this issue lies in budget cuts and misaligned priorities. While essential healthcare services suffer, we see ample resources going toward policing pro-Palestine protests against genocide.

Day-to-day I witness the strain on our healthcare system firsthand. Understaffed facilities, overworked technicians and residents, long emergency room waiting time, and limited access to vital resources like imaging machines, among other challenges, demonstrate the dire consequences of these budget constraints. Outdated electronic medical records further compound our challenges. We see the brunt 

of these deficiencies falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable members of our society: low-income individuals, immigrants, the elderly and children. 

As a healthcare professional, I refuse to turn a blind eye to these systemic failures! It’s imperative that we advocate for proper funding and resource allocation to ensure equitable access to quality healthcare for all members of our community.

HOUSING

I am a city worker at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. I help tenants learn about their rights, deal with abusive landlords and fight displacement. Our agency is launching the citywide Partners in Preservation program, which partners with tenant-organizing groups to assist people forming tenant associations. We provide funding, data and strategic support to organizers while also connecting them with code enforcement and legal services. 

All tenants have rights, including the right to a safe home, to heat and hot water — and the right to organize —as well as protections against discrimination and landlord harassment.

However, many New Yorkers deal with poor living conditions and unresponsive landlords. Most affected are working-class tenants in communities of color, who are often the target of predatory investors, harassment and displacement as part of lucrative gentrification processes. 

The creation of Partners in Preservation is a testament to the growing recognition in government that organizing is essential for helping tenants to uphold their rights. 

When Eric Adams announced a hiring freeze and budget cuts last fall, we were told that our program might lose the majority, or all, of its funding. We also had to freeze hiring. This disruption significantly impacted our team’s morale and our developing relationships with community organizers. The program will now launch a year later than planned. 

Still, I remain excited about working with tenant organizers and about being able to continue the incredible history of housing activism in New York City — from the rent strikes of 1904 and 1907 to the first passage of rent control in 1920, to the creation of public housing in the 1930s, to the right to shelter won in the 1980s. As stated by the National Union of the Homeless, “You only get what you are organized to take!”

MAYOR’S OFFICE

I work in the mayor’s Public Engagement Unit, a relatively new division in the Human Resources Administration (HRA). PEU is an outreach unit for the City’s public services and programs designed to lessen the bureaucracy in accessing these services. We’re expected to prioritize City Hall assignments on a rolling basis and to have near-constant flexibility when it comes to pivoting projects, clients, hours and often workdays. 

Internally, budget cuts over time have created an accumulation of small slow-downs, such as outdated devices like Galaxy S10s for work phones and a notoriously slow intranet so unreliable it helped solidify a policy that forced employees to work from home. Larger impacts include the citywide hiring freeze that’s been indefinite for years, our agency switching pension plans to cut costs, and budgets going unapproved for some PEU teams. 

At PEU we’ve been assigned work directly engaging migrant families in the city in various stages of the asylum process as they become new New Yorkers. Doing this work I notice the glaring contradiction when an entity, the City in this case, is openly hostile to much of the community it serves. While budget squeezes on vital services — libraries, schools, mental-health and social services — have been a reality for decades, this year’s heightened cuts have been framed as a result of the “migrant crisis.” 

On top of the uncontrollable hours and unpredictability of work, being fed anti-immigrant propaganda has been frustrating and insulting and is inextricably tied to why so many city workers have begun to unite under this cause. Workers like me are increasingly connecting the dots between their workplace struggles, the clients they serve and the colonized lands our clients come from — which echo many of our own histories. 

The struggle for a free Palestine is the first time I’ve seen employees and union members across so many sectors rapidly unite under one cause. We’re becoming aware that continuing to fund the militarization of the NYPD instead of providing critical resources that would see our communities thrive is the priority of the city elite, but not of its workers.

Our voice is in the streets!

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