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Do Long Islanders want to return to the office? It's not a simple 'yes' or 'no'

Angelina Ojeda during her commute to work at

Angelina Ojeda during her commute to work at the Farmingdale LIRR station on June 11. Credit: Howard Simmons

It’s a back-to-the-office smackdown.

In one corner are employees such as KimMarie Vazquez, 49, of Patchogue, who has been working remotely but is supposed to go back to her job as an administrative assistant at a Manhattan law firm in September. "I keep saying to my co-workers, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to go back. It’s going to kill me.’ Not literally, but it’s going to be very hard. Mentally it’s a very draining, draining day."

In the other corner are workers such as Angelina Ojeda, 38, of Farmingdale, a single mother who works for a marketing firm in Great Neck. She tried working from home during the pandemic and says: "It was the worst two weeks of my life. There are too many distractions. You can’t get anything done." Is she ready for her colleagues to return as well? "I’ve been ready. It’s good to see faces. It rebuilds those connections."

In the middle of the ring are the employers, trying to figure out how to make everyone happy. Many employees say their companies are dangling a date of the day after Labor Day for some sort of return — either under a hybrid plan or a full-fledged reopening.

It’s like "back-to-school" for grown-ups.

THE CASE FOR: CONTINUING REMOTE WORK

Ashley Taliana’s last day of regular work in her office was March 13, 2020. On June 1 of this year, she was called back to the office two days a week. "My company did a soft opening for only vaccinated employees," says Taliana, 35, of Freeport. Six share a space that once had 30, she says.

"I’ll be honest, last week I was exhausted after only two days," says Taliana, who works in Manhattan as an executive assistant for a real estate developer. "The mental stamina that needs to be built up just to talk and socialize with people … I don’t think people realize." She’s also sad about leaving Chevy, her 14-year-old Miniature Pinscher, alone all day again. She says people are worried about how their pets will react, but "I think it’s me. I got used to being here all day with him."

Right now, Taliana says she has what may be a false sense of security about being in a building. "It almost feels to me like we’re scrubbed into surgery," she says. Employees are screened daily, and her trains to the city aren’t too crowded, she says. But on the day after Labor Day, everyone else is supposed to come back, she says, and she’s concerned about whether her employer will divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated and protect everyone.

Anthony Thornton, 39, who is moving from Uniondale to Dix Hills, says he cherishes the extra time he has had with his son, Xavier, about to turn 5. "I pick him up off the bus, and I sit in my backyard while he plays," says Thornton, who is able to conduct his IT support outdoors. "I just don’t miss sitting in a cubicle for eight hours." He also doesn’t miss paying more than $300 a month for a Long Island Rail Road pass and arriving home at 8:30 p.m., with only 30 minutes until his son’s bedtime.

Susan Bluberg, 54, of Commack, is director of operations for her Manhattan-based postproduction company, so she’s been privy to the thoughts of their 55 employees. "We did a survey. Everybody loves the quality of life that working at home has afforded. Nobody wants to go back to that rat race. I’m hearing a lot of people say that if their company mandates that they have to go back full time, they’ll look for another job."

THE CASE FOR: A RETURN

Robert Powers, 60, of Malverne, says his financial rating agency has a target office return date of October. "I’m looking forward to going in. It’s not only for the job. It’s for the camaraderie; it’s for the atmosphere," he says. He wants to see his "train friends," and chat with the people he buys coffee from on the walk to his Manhattan office. "It’s great to have that routine."

Right now, he and his husband each work in a separate room of their house. He feels like he is always on call, and that there’s no separation of his work life and his home life as there is when he leaves the office physically. And he believes that meeting by Skype and connection through email and texts and phone calls isn’t as satisfying as in-person interaction.

"We’re humans, we want to be with each other. We all miss talking over coffee and a doughnut, having lunch together, meetings in person," he says. "Now we’re home all the time. You need that change of atmosphere."

Ojeda is on the same page. "Being that I’m a single mom, it’s hard to distinguish ‘this is my work time,’" she says of working from home with her 11-year-old twin daughters and 19-year-old son. She also started a new job, and the company gave employees the choice of coming in or working remotely during the pandemic. Because so many employees chose working from home on screens, she jokes that she doesn’t even know how tall her new co-workers are. "I think it’s good everybody else is coming back," she says.

THE CASE FOR: A COMPROMISE

A number of employees interviewed say they would like to see their employers decide on a compromise.

"I wouldn’t mind if it was a day or two," Thornton says. "I really feel like the ‘five-days-a-week’ model should change."

Taliana is all for that as well. "I’d like to keep it to three days a week," she says of going into the office. On the other days, she can get things done such as throwing in a load of laundry during a break or working for a few hours at night to get ahead for the following day.

Bluberg would be on board with that as well. "Upper management is really pushing for a hybrid situation where nobody is really going to go back full time the way we were," she says. "I feel I’ve been just as, if not more, productive, doing what I do. This is over a year. We’ve really gotten into a routine of making it work and not having to physically be there."

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