September 28, 2021
Bobby Cuza: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. As we discussed at the top of the show, Mayor de Blasio toured Rikers Island earlier today to get a firsthand look at the crisis unfolding at the jail complex. He joins me now live from the Blue Room inside City Hall to talk about his visit and much more. Mr. Mayor, welcome back to the show.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Thank you, Bobby. How are you doing tonight?
Cuza: I'm doing all right. So, you've had a busy day. Your long-discussed visit to Rikers Island happened just a few short hours ago. We've seen a lot of lawmakers and others who have visited the facility in the past few weeks, talking about the squalid, horrific conditions there, the conditions under which detainees have been held. Did you get to see any of that today?
Mayor: Bobby, this is an issue related to Rikers Island at its core. This has not been for many, many years a place that we should be using, but it's what we have. It's a very, very sad reality. This is why I fought to finally pass a plan with the City Council to get us off Rikers Island once and for all. So, things I saw this time were very similar to things I saw four years ago, fundamental problems related to Rikers. The answer is to reduce the number of people in Rikers. We've driven down incarceration intensely over the last eight years. We're going to drive it down again, to get the staff back to work who haven't been working. Most of the staff have been doing the job and really respecting each other by showing up, some have not. Those folks are going to be held accountable. And we think the vast majority of them will come back. And doing the things we need to do to make it a healthier environment even within the horrible limitations of an 85-year-old facility, that honestly should have been closed down a long time ago.
Cuza: In terms of the tour itself, my understanding – and correct me if I'm wrong – is that you didn't actually get to speak to any of the detainees themselves or any of the Correction officers. I guess I wonder why not try to speak to some of those who are living this experience firsthand.
Mayor: That wasn't the mission today. The mission today was to figure out the things that we are doing right now, the things we have to do right now, the things we have to add right now to address the situation. I have a very sharp, clear understanding of a lot of the problems, I really do. And they're not new problems. I think that's my central point. I know everyone's paid attention the last few weeks. Well, I can tell you a lot of these problems have been there for decades. But what I do know is we've got to fix everything we can fix. That's where my attention is. So, I met with the medical personnel. I met with some of the key uniformed staff leaders. I went to see the intake facilities, the health facilities, the areas that need the most immediate work. We're going to fix those problems. We're not going to be able to fix everything Rikers because we need to get off of Rikers, but we can fix the immediate problems. And that's what I'm adamant about doing.
Cuza: Obviously, as you've said, a core problem here is the absenteeism on the part of some Correction officers. You have said that those who don't show up to work, those who don't do their jobs, will suffer the consequences and that that message is being heard. I wonder how we know that. Have we seen a number of officers suspended? Do we have any numbers on that?
Mayor: We'll get your latest numbers. We've definitely seen dozens of officers suspended and we've seen dozens of officers come back to work who had been claiming to be sick. And that number is going up all the time. A lot more of the medical appointments are going to happen in the next few days that are going to suss out who's really sick and who's not. And we see actually – Bobby, you'll be interested in this – we see officers who are required to come in for a medical appointment who skip the medical appointment, just show up for work rather than, you know, be proven to be lying. So, look, my bottom line here is, again, the vast majority of these officers are doing the right thing. The union's done the wrong thing. The unions encouraged absenteeism and it has been absolutely destructive. The officers that didn't show up to support their fellow officers did the wrong thing, but they have a chance for redemption. Show up, do your job, help make the place better. But I want to commend the vast majority of officers. It's tough work, but they kept fighting through. And with them as the core, we're going to make the investments, we're going to make the changes to address some of the most pressing immediate problems.
Cuza: You talked a lot about reducing the population, and we can talk a little bit more about that, but I was interested today, you know, you brought up the fact that how much higher the Rikers population used to be. I think it was something like 11,000 when you took office. Now we're down to 5,600 and your Correction Commissioner today made the point that there's 8,300 Correction officers. So, the number of Correction officers actually far exceeds the number of inmates. So, it would seem like we don't have an overpopulation problem, at least on its face, if you look at the numbers. It seems like getting more Correction officers to work would almost single-handedly solve the problem.
Mayor: Well, you got – very fair question and very important question, Bobby, but two points I'd make. One, people have to decide. And some of the folks who have been suspended, a few of them have resigned. I want to urge anyone who's not serious about doing this work and being a public servant and supporting law and order and safety, well, they shouldn't be here anyway. There's lots of other people who want to take those jobs. We have a huge amount of people applying for the new open jobs and the new class for Corrections officers. So, we want to figure out who's for real, who's not. We've had the highest absenteeism level of any City department. Absolutely unacceptable. That's been the core problem. We're going to break the back of that and we're going to fix that. But remember, also the goal here is to have people work single shifts. Because of COVID a series of things happened that caused some officers to have to work triple shifts, that's unacceptable. And the Commissioner has been real clear, by next month we believe there'll be no more triple shifts, even double shifts. It's tough work. A lot of officers obviously don't want to work double shifts. We want to create a reality where we can have officers as much as possible just do that single shift and be done. We're going to achieve that by creating the accountability, getting people back to work who want to keep their job. People who don't want to keep their job, move on, and you'll be replaced by other folks who are willing to do the work. And that's going to allow us to have a much more balanced situation. Plus, that new class that'll be with us in the next few months.
Cuza: As you know, Mr. Mayor, a federal monitor was put in place several years ago to deal with the problems at Rikers. As I understand it, the monitor has called for more outside intervention at Rikers. I know part of your plan involves hiring some private contractors, not in inmate-facing roles, but why not some outside intervention as the monitor has called for?
Mayor: The monitor is called for it. But the judge in the case, who's the arbiter of this, has not agreed to that. And what we're saying is we don't need to reinvent the wheel and put yet another structure on top of a Commissioner and a monitor. We actually know a lot of the things that we need to do, and the monitor agrees. We have to stop this ridiculous situation with people not coming to work. We do need to bring in more officers, the City's doing that. We've put the money in, we've got the class coming. We need to speed up the intake. And that really came from recognizing that although we were trying to reduce the footprint of Rikers constantly to get off Rikers, in fact we had to re-expand into parts of some facilities to get some more clinic space going for a better, healthier intake process. That's been done. I mean, the specific pieces, I think the monitor broadly agrees with, but we don't think bringing in another consultant is the answer. It's about just putting the resources in place, executing a plan, reducing the absenteeism, get more officers where they need to be, speeding up the intake, helping our health professionals do their job. All of these pieces are going to create a very different environment.
Cuza: There's been a lot of talk about you using your executive powers to unilaterally reduce the population by releasing some inmates particularly those with short sentences. You will be doing some of that later this week – do I have that right?
Mayor: Probably later this week is right. But, again, I keep telling people, and I feel a little bit like a broken record here, Bobby. It's not the solution. I know a lot of people are really focused on it. It's just not the key solution. The key solution is to get hundreds and hundreds of inmates to either State facilities or to a full release if they can be released because they're technical parole violators. That's where we intend to take the current population in the jails which is about 5,600, get that under 5,000 in the weeks ahead. When it comes down to these other City-sentenced folks, when you look at the ones who actually could be released, and then you account for those who, unfortunately, might present a safety risk because of the nature of the charges that they were found guilty of, or their particular history with violent crime, I'm not releasing people who I think will present a safety risk. I'm just not. We have much better ways to reduce the population on a bigger scale and to create a safer environment. So, I've said it a bunch of times, I'll keep saying it anytime anyone wants to ask, but the goal here is to make Rikers healthier and safer, but also to respect the fact that we're trying to continue to improve public safety for the city as a whole.
Cuza: All right. Mayor de Blasio, hold it right there. We got a lot more to talk about, but for now it's time for a break. I will have much more with Mayor de Blasio when we come back, stay with us.
Welcome back to Inside City Hall. I'm once again joined by Mayor de Blasio from the Blue Room inside City Hall. Mayor de Blasio, just a short while ago, we heard news from a federal appeals court about the City's vaccination mandate for teachers and for all Department of Education employees. It has been hard to keep track of this – the vaccine mandate was going to take effect today –
Mayor: You need a scorecard.
Cuza: Yeah, it was put on hold late last week. And then now it appears the federal appeals court has reversed itself, and the mandate can take effect or actually may be in effect as we speak. What's your understanding of when this will take effect for teachers?
Mayor: Bobby, I want to commend you. You're absolutely informed. And the sound of confusion in your voice is absolutely natural because this has been the strangest trip we've been on, but here's the bottom line. First, I'll tell you what the judge did, then I have some breaking news for you. The three-judge panel definitively, once and for all, said the federal appeals court, the City of New York has a right to put a vaccine mandate in place for the adults who work in our public schools, period. End of process. Nothing else to discuss. Federal appeals exhausted, done. The mandate moves forward. Here's your breaking news. We want to realign the timeline here because it's been on again, off again. We thought this was going to be later in the week as it was. We're going to give folks until the end of Friday, the folks who work in our public schools. And you've heard the good news today, we already have a very high level of vaccination across all the professions in our public schools. We expect to be hearing more and more that will confirm even higher levels of vaccination than we've already confirmed. But any adult working in our schools who is not yet vaccinated, you have until Friday five o'clock, get vaccinated, single dose, you're done. Get the second dose on time later on, but for the purpose of continuity, one dose by Friday five o'clock and you're in, come to work Monday. If you have not gotten that first dose by Friday five o'clock, we will assume you are not coming to work on Monday and you will not be paid starting Monday, and we will fill your role with a substitute or an alternative employee. So, we're lining this up now with the weekend, we got a little more time, giving people a little more time to get it right, and a little smoother process going into next Monday. But this is – there's no more legal options here. We're done. This mandate will take effect and we're going to activate it fully, five o'clock Friday. By then you have to be vaccinated one dose, minimum, and then come to work Monday morning if you are vaccinated. If you're not vaccinated, don't come to work, and we will fill that line.
Cuza: Do you know that's going to work in terms of the mechanics? Do teachers have to present that proof at school to the principal or is there some other [inaudible] –
Mayor: There's a portal – they can, of course, tell their supervisors, but there's a portal that DOE employees have been using. Tens of thousands of them have been signing up and just showing their proof. That's the easiest way to do it.
Cuza: Well, you said that all the legal options have been exhausted. I think the plaintiffs in that lawsuit may beg to differ. I want to read a statement for you from them after that ruling that we saw today from the federal appeals court. It read, “With thousands of teachers not yet vaccinated, the City may regret what it wished for. Our children will be left with no teachers and no security in the schools. We are currently in the process of petitioning the U. S. Supreme Court for emergency relief.” We'll see where that goes. But I guess that gets to the issue of what the City plans to do if there are teachers and other school staff, whether that's a custodial staff or administrative staff, that isn't at school on Monday, and how that could hinder school operations.
Mayor: Bobby, first of all, God blessed them for their persistence, but we've won at State court. We won in federal district court. We won in the federal appeals court. They can do whatever they want, it's America, but they're out of options, those folks bring in this lawsuit. This vaccine mandate is moving forward. Two, we've already reported this morning huge, huge numbers in terms of principals, teachers, employees across the board. We right now have such substantial numbers of our school employees who are vaccinated confirmed. We had 7,000 more vaccinations between Friday and Saturday, and more coming. We will have the team we need to put on the field, and we have a lot of substitutes, a lot of employees ready to be deployed if needed. So, right this minute we can run the school system effectively with the people we have, but we know we're going to pick up a lot more because a lot more vaccinations will come in now, I think the message that the appeals are over, this is now the law, this is what's going to happen, is going to move a lot more people will be vaccinated. And if some stand apart, we're going to move on without them. But I think they will wish that they stuck around and some of them may miss having a paycheck, miss being with their kids. And they're still welcome to come back. But we're moving on, on Monday, one way or another.
Cuza: All right. So, there's the vaccination mandate for teachers. There's also one for health care workers. That is not a city mandate. That was implemented, imposed by the State. And that took effect today. So, anyone who works at a hospital or other health care facilities must be vaccinated as of today. I know your Health + Hospitals – the head of your Health + Hospitals, city's public health hospital system, said today, there are something like 5,000 employees there who are not yet vaccinated. And those people will be sent home for the day without pay –
Mayor: Bobby, I'm sorry to interrupt that. That's not what he said, respectfully. He was asked what's the universe of potential folks that they know of who are not yet vaccinated. He said it could be as high as 5,000, but he expected a lot of them to get vaccinated in the meantime, and to bring those reports forward. That's not the final number. But the point he was making is even with numbers like that, we're going to be able to run our health system. Right now, we've had a very smooth day at Health + Hospitals. And, again, what you're going to see is a lot of people – last minute vaccinations, a lot of people think twice about this when they’re really looking down the barrel of not having a paycheck and a job anymore and a career, are going to come back and get vaccinated. So, it's not static but, again, we have the personnel we need right this minute to run our public health system effectively.
Cuza: And, obviously, this is not just the public hospital system, it's also private hospitals. Have we heard from the private sector in terms of whether there are any issues? I know Governor Hochul had said over the weekend if necessary, she could call in the National Guard or take some other sort of drastic measures if we see a staff shortage at hospitals. Do you think that'll be necessary?
Mayor: Well not in New York City from everything I'm seeing now, Bobby. Right now, again, with the public hospitals, very strong, very stable in terms of staffing. We're not hearing a lot so far from the voluntary, from the private hospitals, about having a particular need. I think the ones that got out earliest with the vaccine mandate had huge vaccination numbers. I think there's a little too much focus on the very small number of people standing apart. Look at the citywide population of adults. 82 percent now have had at least one dose of the vaccine, 82 percent. This is a super, super majority. In the workplaces, you're talking about 90 percent-plus in a lot of the different professions in public service now. I think we're kind of paying attention to yesterday's reality, not today's reality. The vast majority of people who work for the health system, work for the schools have already made a decision they're staying. That's going to put more pressure on the others to stay. We have what we need. The rest of the state, I think there are profound challenges with the health care system. I know the Governor's dealing with a lot of challenges there. But in the city, so far, it looks very good.
Cuza: Mr. Mayor, just a few seconds left, but has the City been able to measure the effectiveness of these mandates? In other words, have we seen an increase in the number of teachers, Department of Education staff, health care workers, who've gotten vaccinated just in the lead up to these deadlines?
Mayor: Huge – yeah, we've been showing these updates in the morning press conferences, Bobby. Overwhelming. The mandates including the indoor dining mandate, etcetera, the incentives, it's just been a straight upward line. And now as we got close to the mandates hitting with public service, I told you 7,000 more vaccinations in the school system between Friday and Saturday. Mandates work. They work for the vast majority of people who are not yet vaccinated. It's causing them to get vaccinated, and that's good for New York City.
Cuza: Mayor de Blasio, busy day for you. Thank you for taking some time out to speak with us as always.
Mayor: Absolutely, Bobby. Take care.