As children headed back to school last month, people watching New York emerge from the shadow of COVID-19 wondered whether workers who fled Manhattan office towers during the pandemic would finally return in a hurry.
More workers returned to their offices, at least part-time, as the summer ended, limited data suggested. But the onset of fall has also made it clearer than ever that the recovery will be slow and that some aspects of the city’s economic ecosystem could change for good.
“We’ve certainly entered a changed relationship between office workers and their offices,” said James Parrott, director of Economic and Fiscal Policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.
That means hardship for New Yorkers who are part of an economy built around the commuting class.
It’s the workers whose livelihoods can’t be made through an Internet connection, who depend on the customer’s peace of mind of being in the right place at the right time—the sudden urge to buy a snack, walk into a store, drop a few bucks into a street performer’s tip bucket.
They’re people like Emad Ahmed, 58, who for more than two decades has worked in lower Manhattan, running his food cart in a plaza near Wall Street and the World Trade Center.
The pandemic forced a hiatus, but as soon as he could, Ahmed returned — and he really wishes he could say the same for all the workers he relied on as clients, many of whom still work from home and only come to Manhattan a few days a week. week at most.
“The pandemic (is) almost over, nobody uses a mask now, and you can go on the subway and the bus without masks, and people still don’t come,” he said. It’s not “quite the same as before”.
Some had seen Labor Day as a potential catalyst, a transition back to the way things were, and indeed, some data has shown momentum since then, including metro area office occupancy nearing halfway.
Metro ridership is also on the rise, with one day last week reaching nearly 3.9 million passengers. While that’s only about 64% of a comparable day before the pandemic, weekday totals are up overall since the holiday.
A survey of Manhattan companies conducted by the Partnership for New York City last month found that, on average, just under half of Manhattan office workers were in their offices on average in early September.
But when it comes to returning to the office full-time, only 9% of workers, with the largest group at 37%, were inside for three days a week. Sixteen percent of workers were still completely remote.
Looking ahead the rest of the year to early 2023, the survey didn’t show those numbers changing drastically, despite city government and company leaders urging workers to return.
“People are used to the flexibility and benefits of not having to commute to the office every day,” said Kathryn Wild, president and CEO of the partnership. “They should have good reasons to come back.”
Remote work has brought a job recovery and vibrancy to some neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, as people who live close to home have brought their coffee and other daily necessities to local stores.
But that hasn’t made up for what was lost, said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank.
“In some ways, it’s almost a miracle how much the city’s economy has recovered from the depths of March 2020,” Bowles said.
New York lost more than 970,000 jobs when the pandemic hit. as of August, only about 810,000 had returned, about 84 percent.
“But there are still really big pockets, particularly around central business districts where entrepreneurs and small businesses are struggling left and right … seeing a fraction of their previous customers,” Bowles said.
Among them is Ahmed. On his best days, midweek, he sees maybe 60% of what he would have before the pandemic. At worst, even getting to 10-15% can be a challenge.
For some dependent on office life, the partial return was enough. Denis Johnston, executive vice president of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, said nearly all of the commercial office cleaners represented by the union are back on the job.
Whether companies have some or all of their employees back on a given day, spaces need to be cleaned and maintained, so members are needed, he said.
Some, like taxi driver Sukhdarshan Singh, have learned to adapt. While there are fewer commuters, he finds fares at other times.
“The office people haven’t come back, but in the evenings and weekends, people are out,” said Singh, a taxi driver for about 35 years.
But other industries are suffering. Among retail stores, food and beverage stores have seen only about 66 percent of jobs return, while clothing stores have seen about 62 percent, according to New York’s Independent Budget Office.
If office workers “aren’t in town, they’re not shopping in town,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Association.
“Stores are operating with fewer people because there are fewer customers,” he said.
The city’s unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in August, significantly higher than the national rate of 3.7 percent.
Office workers being delayed “will absolutely affect the value for tons of … vendors, people who operate food trucks and so many other businesses that really depend on office workers to provide a large portion of their sales.” Bowles said.
“There’s just going to be less of those random encounters where people are getting something to eat or drink or take home during their lunch, on the way to work and on the way home,” Bowles said. “And that’s a surprisingly huge part of Manhattan’s economy.”
Ahmed worries about his future, especially as winter approaches. Even before the pandemic, the cold was slow for business, and now there are worries that it will be a big economic freeze.
It just holds out hope that the city’s streets will return to the life they once had.
“Nothing else can help me,” he said. “Without people? This is.”