N.F.L.’s Push Ahead With Season Rankles Workers in the Home Office

Almost alone in the sports world, the N.F.L. has promised to hold its 2020 season as scheduled even as the pandemic forces other sports leagues to cancel or reschedule games and construct elaborate self-contained communities to play their seasons.

But the league’s push to keep to its ambitious schedule has hit substantial interference. First, more than 100 players and staff have tested positive for the coronavirus. Dozens of other players have decided to sit out this season to reduce their risk of infection.

And now, some N.F.L. office workers are resisting an order to return to the league’s Manhattan headquarters, contending that the reopening has been rushed and has not been fully thought through, according to two employees and an internal email. Nearly everyone has been ordered to begin spending at least some time in the office starting Aug. 17.

In a letter sent to Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday that was reviewed by The New York Times, representatives from an internal group, the Parents Initiative Network, said that “many of us continue to struggle with the prospect of returning to the office in the midst of the pandemic.” The group said its members have “underlying physical health concerns, mental health concerns, child care issues, medically fragile family members, and the list goes on and on.”

League officials have said that allowances will be made for employees with particular health concerns or family challenges. But the parent network took issue with that, too. The N.F.L. is requiring workers who want to continue to work remotely to discuss these requests with human resources representatives. Workers said that requirement “puts our colleagues in an impossible situation” because of their desire to maintain their own and their family members’ privacy on matters of physical and mental health, among other reasons.

N.F.L. personnel have handled a range of matters effectively while working remotely, the letter said, including overseeing the annual draft, making a plan for coronavirus tracing and developing new sponsor relationships. Giving employees greater latitude to continue working remotely, the letter said, would underscore that “the ‘F’ in NFL also stands for “‘Family.’”

Dasha Smith, the league’s chief people officer, said in an interview that many employees have expressed concerns, including uncertainty around schools reopening and child care issues. She said the league had accommodated everyone who had asked for flexibility in returning, and the only feasible way for employees to address their concerns was with human resources.

Smith said that workers will only need to return to the office a few days a week, and that one of the most valuable aspects of being in the office was the ability to have spontaneous interactions with colleagues, rather than scheduling them in advance.

“What we’re missing out a lot of are those ad hoc, five minute conversations that are very hard to do remotely,” she said.

In late June, the N.F.L. brought back about 25 percent of its usual head count to its headquarters at Manhattan’s 345 Park Avenue, where about 800 people work. Workers at its offices in Culver City, Calif., and Laurel, N.J. have followed a different timetable. Now, league officials have laid the groundwork for a more complete employee return to Park Avenue, starting with those who have their own offices on Aug. 17 and followed by those who work from cubicles on Aug. 24. To maintain social distancing, no more than half of an office’s staff will be present on any day, with workers alternating days.

The return was announced July 31 in an email from Goodell making the case to get back to the office, particularly as players have been asked to report to training camp.

“As our teams and players gear up for the season, it is critical that we quickly ramp up our physical presence in the workplace too,” Goodell wrote in the email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.

In his response to the parent network on Thursday, the commissioner said that many employees have been coming into the office since late June and “have felt both safe and that our productivity has increased by being here.” He said that employees at the league’s satellite offices have also returned to the office “without incident.”

The tussle at the league’s headquarters comes as thousands of players from around the country return to their team facilities. The league and players’ union spent months negotiating ways to reduce the risk of infection to players, coaches and team personnel, approving plans that included reconfigured locker rooms, reduced travel schedules and extensive testing of all employees. Players were also allowed to skip the season without penalty. The season is scheduled to begin Sept. 10 with the Kansas City Chiefs playing at home against the Houston Texans.

Unlike the players, workers in the league’s headquarters, as well as on individual teams, are not unionized, so they have less leverage to negotiate work conditions. In that regard, the league’s efforts to accommodate its workers’ needs, particularly parents, mirror challenges faced by many companies. The league is also aware of criticism that it does not treat women fairly, and has worked in recent years to increase the number of women in its headquarters and teams.

In May, the league furloughed employees who could not do their jobs from home, or those who had their work significantly reduced. The league also cut salaries for higher-paid employees, including Goodell.

Goodell now joins the ranks of New York area chief executives, restaurant owners, school principals and other organizational leaders trying to run their workplaces during the worst public-health crisis in recent memory. The tech giant Google has said that most of its employees won’t return to its offices in the United States, including in New York, until the summer of 2021. Schools in New York plan to experiment with a combination of remote and distance learning. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and other banks have maintained a skeletal staff in their offices since the pandemic first rattled the city, with mixed results.

The employees who work at N.F.L. headquarters in Manhattan, where the job descriptions range from handling payroll and events to communications, legal work and financial operations, are now facing some of the same concerns as workers in other areas who have experienced wide Covid-19 outbreaks. They are wary of public transportation, irritated at the idea of wearing a mask at the office all day while still conducting much of their business through teleconferencing, and anxious about the possibility of falling ill themselves or infecting vulnerable family members. Now, some N.F.L. employees feel torn between staying home to maintain their personal well-being and reporting to the office to ensure their job security, according to two current employees and the parent network’s letter.

The start of school in New York City is also the same day the new football season starts, meaning some N.F.L. parents at the league headquarters could be busiest at work just as they are juggling limited in-person class schedules or overseeing another round of distance learning. And unlike many other cities, who plan to conduct school entirely remotely this fall, New York’s schools are planning to reopen to many students with one to three days a week in physical classrooms, complicating child-care schedules.

The N.F.L. has prepared a detailed plan for safeguarding employees who return to its offices. Cubicles have been spaced out, copiers must be wiped down after each use and arrows on the floor dictate which routes to walk. Workers use a virtual app daily to answer questions about their exposure to the virus and body temperature, and foot-operated buttons will open doors. “We’ve put a lot of thought into this,” said Smith, the chief people officer.

Nonetheless, some employees have been roiled by the news. During an all-hands virtual call held Monday, Smith said she received 300 queries from employees on the chat function, ranging from requests for clarification on the safety protocols to expressions of concern about the repercussions of not returning. There were questions about whether the league’s $75-per-day reimbursement for using ride-sharing services to get to work or $30-per-day parking repayments were generous enough, said two participants in the call. Others wondered how to handle child-care issues at a time when school had not yet begun.

Questions were also raised about whether employees would be fired for not coming in, said the participants. League officials said no.

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