The UN delegate’s lounge, usually a hive of activity, has remained largely dead due to the pandemic lockdown—except during the high-level segment of the General Assembly last September. Credit: Inter Press Service (IPS)


UNITED NATIONS, Nov 1 2021 (IPS) - The United Nations, which suffered a pandemic lockdown over the last 20 months– with most staffers tele-working from their homes– is expected to return to near-normal, come November 15.

In a letter to New York-based staffers, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says that “in the light of improved conditions” relating to the spread of corona virus infections, “the exception, which currently allows staff members to telework up to four days per week, will be discontinued, beginning November 15.”

As of that date, he says, requests for telecommuting may be authorized by managers in line with the policy on Flexible Working Arrangements, ST/SGB/2019/3, and subject to the nature of the functions being performed, as well as to work exigencies.

“Managers are encouraged to afford flexibility to staff members in line with the lessons learned over the past 20 months regarding adaptability and flexibility in our working methods. Furthermore, the requirement for core working hours will remain suspended”, the letter adds.

Last month, New York city Mayor Bill de Blasio mandated vaccinations for thousands of City employees, including police, fire fighters, sanitation workers, hospital staff and municipal employees who will be put on “no pay leave” if they are not vaccinated – either for medical, personal, political or religious reasons.

But, so far, the UN has not placed any such penalties on un-vaccinated staffers—even though some private sector employers in the US have told their employees: “Get Vaccinated or Get Fired.”

The Secretary-General’s authority, as the UN’s chief administrative officer, applies primarily to staffers, not to hundreds of diplomats, who are subject to restrictions only by the 193-member General Assembly, the UN’s highest policy-making body.

UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters late October “the vaccination rate for UN staff … is about 87.08 per cent that are fully vaccinated, staff in total”.

The empty racks on the UN’s third floor, home to several news organizations. Credit: IPS

In a letter to UN-accredited journalists last month, Tal Mekel, Chief, Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit (MALU) in the Department of Global Communications, was more specific.

“As the transition continues from Phase 2 to Next Normal – gradual return to the workplace at UN Headquarters– additional precautionary measures will be taken in an effort to ensure a safe work environment for everyone.”

“As you may know, COVID-19 vaccinations are now mandated for UN staff performing certain tasks and/or certain occupational groups at UNHQ whose functions do not allow sufficient management of exposure.”

All journalists were requested by MALU to send information relating to date of vaccination, location of vaccination (city) and proof of vaccination (as attachment).

Asked about the status of the un-vaccinated, Mekel told IPS: “Access is suspended until vaccination status is confirmed.”

Guy Candusso, a former First Vice President of the UN Staff Union in New York told IPS: “I believe the policy before COVID was to allow telecommuting for up to 3 days per week. But in any case, it should depend on the nature of the work.”

Asked whether it is wise to get staff back into the building when infection rates are still relatively high in New York city—and while about 13 percent of UN staff remain unvaccinated– he said: “there will never be 100% of staff vaccinated for various reasons. But of more concern is how many diplomats, consultants, office cleaners and cafeteria workers have been vaccinated.”

“Only when you look at the whole picture can you make an informed decision,” he added.

The Secretary-General’s circular says “the overwhelming majority of staff have reported that they have been fully vaccinated.”

Still, says the circular, the UN will take precautions compelling all personnel to continue to wear masks in common areas, such as corridors, elevators, and restrooms.

Masks are also mandatory in enclosed meeting spaces where the vaccination status of all participants has not been confirmed.

However, vaccinated personnel are no longer required to wear masks while working at their individual workstations. Personnel who are not vaccinated will continue to be required, at all times, to wear masks throughout UN premises and to observe physical distancing wherever it is possible to do so, he added.

Prisca Chaoui, President of the 3,500-strong staff coordinating council in Geneva, which is home to multiple UN agencies, told IPS that at the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG) “ we conducted a survey that showed that more than half of those who took part in it wanted to have the COVID pass imposed to get access to the compound.”

”But our management decided not to”.

“Other international organizations in Geneva such as WTO, WIPO, ITU and WMO are gradually imposing the pass to access the premises or a negative test within the last 48 hours.”

She said UNOG staff are required, as of 3 November, to be back in office for two days a week.

“This is a welcome step as we need to be physically back to office even though staff have never stopped to work since March 2020, but we wish it were possible to get more safety measures such as the proof of vaccination or a negative test result”.

Still, she said, some staff are concerned about the return to office without these measures being imposed.

“I believe there should be a harmonized approach as each organization is currently taking its own decision, depending on the duty station, which is normal in a way, as the epidemiological situation is different from one place to another.”

But in locations where staff have access to vaccination, such as Geneva, this shouldn’t be the case. In Geneva, which is host of many international organizations, there is a disparity in the measures adopted, which shouldn’t have been the case.

“I believe that safety measures, including the COVID pass, are important for a safe return to office.

In his circular Guterres says one of the reasons to return to near normal conditions is that conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City have continued to improve and stabilize, and the host country is further opening for international travel starting on 8 November 2021.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of UN staff have reported that they have been fully vaccinated.

“I want to once again thank all colleagues for your efforts during this unprecedented period. You have helped ensure the uninterrupted work of the Organization and support for Member States as needed.”

Ian Richards, former President of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA) told IPS that in a survey carried out at the UN in Geneva, staff said it wanted administration to request either proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test to enter the building and cafeteria, like at the WTO and WMO.

Many said it would make them feel safer returning to their offices, especially as infection rates in Geneva have been shooting up, much of the building is open space and authorities are recommending teleworking, he added.

“Administration refused staff’s safety request saying that it would prevent delegates attending meetings. While we understand that there are political considerations, we don’t quite buy this argument”, said Richards.

He also pointed out that Geneva-based diplomats have all been able to get vaccinated and those travelling in from abroad will have a PCR with them or can easily get one.

“We hope the administration will reconsider its decision so we can help our offices get back to business in the safest way possible.”