Hundreds of city workers take on new jobs to meet pandemic needs

From librarians to Streets and Sanitation workers, their regular jobs are on hold or taking a backseat as the pandemic grips the city.

SHARE Hundreds of city workers take on new jobs to meet pandemic needs
Sasha Neri takes calls at her phone bank work station at Malcolm X College where talks with covid affected people who need food and coordinates food drop-offs at their homes.

Librarian Sasha Neri is temporarily working at Malcolm X College returning calls from people who’ve called 311 asking for food assistance.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Sasha Neri’s voice serves her well as a librarian. It’s calm, energetic and confident, with hints of happiness.

With the city’s libraries closed since March, she’s put her voice to use returning phone calls from people who’ve called 311 asking for food assistance because the coronavirus has left them in a bad spot. 

“We were given the opportunity to serve in another capacity, and I had to jump on it because we can’t serve our library patrons directly right now,” said Neri, 34, who’s one of about 50 librarians who help staff a call center from a conference room at Malcolm X College. 

They’re part of hundreds of city workers who’ve been repurposed to other necessary roles to aid the city’s response to the pandemic. 

If food is needed immediately, a handful of drivers with the Streets and Sanitation Department — an agency normally associated with filling potholes and trimming trees — will deliver them. The city partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Salvation Army to feed those affected by the virus.

Streets and Sanitation worker Robert Roundtree has made emergency food deliveries all over the city.

“Eighty percent were senior citizens who couldn’t even carry the box of food in their house,” said Roundtree, 54, who wears a mask while carrying out the work. “It’s real heartfelt when you can help somebody like that. I love every minute of it.” 

Another 75 library employees have taken home 3D printers and sewing machines from libraries — where they’re normally available to the public — to make masks and face shields for essential workers.

Jennifer Washington’s job at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events normally entails working with festival promoters to ensure they have the proper permits and safety plans. 

But lately, she’s been overseeing the city’s effort to collect personal protective equipment from an array of donors. “We’ve had to do very little solicitation, there hasn’t been any strong-arming. They come to us,” she said of donations, which have mostly come from large companies in the area.

She swapped an office at the Cultural Center downtown for a desk in the gymnasium of the city’s police academy on the Near West Side, which has been doubling as Chicago’s emergency operations center.

About half of Washington’s 70 or so colleagues are also working in other capacities, she said.

“The effort the city’s workforce is putting in to get this job done, it’s just inspiring,” said Rich Guidice, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, who’s helping to spearhead the pandemic response.

“We have all 32 city agencies that have been involved with the emergency operation center in some capacity,” he said. 

Guidice said hundreds of city workers have been redeployed. An exact number wasn’t available.

Rosie Jimenez normally works in the Planning and Development Department on an initiative to steer investment toward disadvantaged South and West Side neighborhoods. The investment initiative is still up and running, but Jimenez is taking leave to assist with pandemic response efforts. Now she assists efforts to find hotels for weary first responders and health care workers to rest for a few hours before returning to work. 

Margaret LaRaviere was a civilian employee with the Police Department who worked on police reforms. Now she’s a liaison with the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team tasked with figuring out what communities of color on the South and West sides need during the pandemic and how the city can help fulfill those needs.

“This is the room where it happens,” said LaRaviere, borrowing a line from the hit musical “Hamilton” to describe the city’s gymnasium coronavirus headquarters. “There are a lot of resources here in this room, and you’re able to talk about issues in communities and how to marshal resources to address them.”

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