Amid a larger cultural reckoning with race following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, employees at the historic American Kennel Club were hoping to join a number of other companies and organizations in making Juneteenth a company holiday.
Instead, while the nonprofit’s staff were hard at work that day, they received a brief email: Even as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, they would have to return to the AKC’s Midtown Manhattan office within a week.
“As you have heard, the good news is that New York City will move to Phase 2 on Monday, June 22, 2020, allowing our office to return to operating as a workplace,” said a letter from the organization’s executive team, adding, “Understandably, changes are sometimes challenging, and we appreciate your flexibility during this difficult time.”
Beginning last Monday, New York officially allowed workers not classified as essential to return to offices in Manhattan. Among the companies and organizations that took the full plunge back into office life was the AKC, the large, 136-year-old nonprofit that acts as the governing body for America’s most famous dog shows and runs the world’s largest purebred dog registry.
Of course, while the organization has enthusiastically embraced a return to work, employees are less than pleased. The Daily Beast spoke to numerous AKC employees who all expressed distress or anger about the return to the office, specifically lamenting the lack of clear explanation for the decision, the potential for another NYC-centered coronavirus wave, potential hindrances to their ability to effectively work, and a chilly or at times tone-deaf response from management when staffers circulated a letter expressing their concerns.
“This is very terrifying,” one employee replied succinctly when asked about the situation.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the AKC did not respond to individual questions addressing the various employee concerns, but said the organization was “complying with state and city guidelines,” and emphasized that they were not aware of any staffers who had contracted COVID-19.
But since the return-to-work policy was announced earlier this month, AKC employees have made their trepidations well-known to the org’s higher-ups. The response has been muted at best.
In a private letter circulated widely within the AKC among staff and managers, around a dozen employees expressed grave concerns about the spread of coronavirus in states that had reopened, and asked for the organization to delay the office reopening until August 1 in order to assess the long-term safety of return-to-work policies in the city.
Per the memo, which was obtained by The Daily Beast, some staffers additionally argued that they had been working successfully in a remote setting, despite company-wide furloughs in April, and that they could continue to accomplish most tasks without traveling to the Manhattan offices.
“Please understand that we genuinely love the AKC, our jobs, and the work we are able to do every day for purebred dogs,” the employees wrote. “We respect and appreciate our co-workers and supervisors and genuinely care for one another.
”With that being said, we are very concerned about the level of disregard we are being shown as employees and members of the AKC community. This decision also affects and threatens our family, partners, and roommates, many of whom have been instructed to avoid summer camps, corporate offices, and public transportation until the fall.”
Staffers also claimed that several managers and executives have echoed their concerns to top AKC CEO Dennis B. Sprung, but were ignored. (Sprung did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.) According to these sources, there was never any response to the staff letter circulated in early June; and the lack of clear explanations has left employees to speculate about the reasons for such a hasty return to the office. “This decision was not based on logic, it's based on the CEO’s feelings of wanting to be back in the office,” one staffer remarked.
According to staff, throughout the crisis Sprung has continued to call into virtual meetings from the company’s Midtown office, which is within walking distance of his apartment. And over the past several days, employees said, the CEO has sent emails to all staff (the vast majority of whom had not yet returned to the office) encouraging them to eat communal food.
“Fresh muffins for everyone are in the Cafe. Pick them up and enjoy!” one message read.
“I appreciate that everyone enjoyed yesterday’s excellent lunch,” the CEO wrote. “Today, there are fresh bagels with butter individually wrapped for you from Zabar’s. Keep enjoying.”
Such messages ring as tonedeaf, staffers said, considering the immense public-health safety protocols employees might expect upon a return to offices. Similarly, staffers said, the company has offered little comfort about its concerns about potential exposure to the virus—an entirely reasonable fear, sources said, because according to an organization-wide email sent earlier this year, there was already a confirmed coronavirus case in the building.
Additionally, according to multiple employees, some who returned to the offices on Monday were disturbed to find that their desks visibly had not received a deep cleaning. And the organization’s only screening policy is a mandatory “self-evaluation” in which employees are required to report daily whether they have symptoms of coronavirus before entering the Midtown office. Another precaution came in the form of AKC asking employees to keep a spreadsheet log of any not socially distanced interaction they have with co-workers.
The return to the office is not full-time, however, as the AKC has staggered employee returns, putting them into two separate rotating groups that trade off weeks of commuting into the office for work (managers are expected to be there every day, however, regardless of group).
According to multiple staffers, higher-ups have intimated to some employees that the group return ensures that if there is a coronavirus outbreak in the office, one group may still be able to physically return to work.
But employees pointed out that because the organization is attempting to maintain some social distance, many staffers would be on a different in-office schedule from people they work with daily—potentially inhibiting their ability to get as much work done as they would in a remote setting. Multiple insiders told The Daily Beast that even with the staggered scheduling, meetings would still ultimately be held virtually via Zoom.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to drastically alter American society, public-health experts have urged caution about returns to shared workspaces. The Centers for Disease Control’s reopening guidelines suggest companies “ask employees who use public transportation to consider using teleworking to promote social distancing.” A Washington Post survey found that 60 percent of Americans who work outside the home fear exposing themselves and their families to the virus. And experts have suggested that the safest returns to offices would require the installation of sneeze guards, one-way corridors, and more appropriately distanced desk spaces.
The AKC is far from the only organization charging ahead with reopening despite objections and health-related concerns voiced by staffers. Last month, The Daily Beast reported that South Carolina’s largest newspaper, Charleston's Post and Courier, mandated all staff to return to the office despite fears of contracting coronavirus (several weeks after the decision, The Daily Beast reported that there had been a case in the office, and managers were considering asking staff to stay home again).
Despite some bad press and past criticism from some animal activists over its 100-plus-year history, the American Kennel Club has remained one of the most visible nonprofit dog-related institutions in the country. In addition to administering and running various high-profile dog shows, including the Westminster Dog Show, the club serves as a registry for purebred dogs and is an oft-cited source of information about canine breeds.
Still, staffers have been struck by the irony that an organization that prides itself on the humane treatment of animals would put its own staff at risk.
“This is a nonprofit that claims to care about animals, but they don’t even seem to care about people,” one employee quipped.