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LI town leaders urge state to offer vaccines to municipal workers

Smithtown Highway Superintendent Robert Murphy outside Highway Department

Smithtown Highway Superintendent Robert Murphy outside Highway Department headquarters in Smithtown on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Officials from Smithtown and other Long Island municipalities say public safety could be threatened without COVID-19 vaccinations for essential local government workers.

"If we had snow tomorrow and I couldn’t get (plow) crews out there, it would cause mayhem," said Smithtown Superintendent of Highways Robert Murphy, who oversees 120 employees. A group representing New York State's town highway superintendents, headed by Southampton Town Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor, has already asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to include municipal highway workers on the list of those now eligible for the vaccine in a Jan. 11 letter shared with Newsday. Gregor said he'd gotten no response, despite following up with faxes to Cuomo's office. "We're not being selfish — we just have a job to do, and when it gets nasty it's us who go out to open up the roads," he said.

A letter last Thursday sent to the governor from the association representing the 10 Suffolk County town supervisors stopped short of making a similar request but noted "the majority of our employees still are not included in any vaccine schedule as of today, endangering our abilities to provide essential services like senior meal delivery, animal shelter staffing, duties of the Town Clerk and the functions of our building departments."

Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, the group's leader, said provisions should also be made for employees of private garbage carters who work under municipal contract. Schaffer said the group spoke about the need for prompt vaccination of some categories of municipal workers with Cuomo staffer Lisa Santeramo in a conference call two weeks ago and got a positive but noncommittal response: "They’re looking at it," Schaffer said. "They’re juggling both phases (of vaccine rollout), and they don’t have as many vaccines as they need."

Representatives for Nassau County town supervisors did not comment.

A spokesman for Cuomo's office, Jack Sterne, said in an email that the administration is trying to "get as many New Yorkers vaccinated as quickly as possible — but due to a lack of supply from the federal government, we have been forced to limit eligibility."

In an interview, Jerry Laricchiuta, regional president for CSEA, which represents 50,000 municipal workers and retirees on Long Island said, "All people that are considered essential that need to come to work should be able to get a vaccine that could save their life. Not just my members, plenty of people who are not members that fall into that category."

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With thousands of public workers across Long Island unvaccinated, at least three towns — Babylon, Smithtown and Brookhaven — are paying a vendor for rapid testing and contact tracing. Many towns have staggered work schedules to limit the spread of an outbreak, and have put in place policies for workers who may have been exposed to the virus to quarantine.

In Village of the Branch, an incorporated enclave near downtown Smithtown with just a handful of employees, Mayor Mark Delaney said that an unvaccinated workforce presented unique risks for a small municipality like his. Though he has not lobbied for early vaccinations for his staff, he noted that should the village’s sole building inspector be exposed to the virus, for example, "he’s got to quarantine 10 to 14 days where a homeowner can’t get a permit and a commercial landlord can't open a building."

Murphy closed his office temporarily after a virus scare last fall and said he sometimes fields resident complaints over service; some days he must work with about 16% of his workforce sick or quarantined. Babylon had to juggle employees in the middle of tax season after an outbreak in its tax receiver’s office, and Brookhaven has had to postpone work or ask some employees to work extra shifts, officials said.

Early vaccination eligibility

Law enforcement, fire service, teachers and certain other public employees are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, according to Gov. Cuomo's office, but an eligibility list released last week does not mention the highway, public works and parks workers that make up the bulk of many local government workforces on Long Island.

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