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NY Post
New York Post
21 Oct 2023

NextImg:‘Callous’ NYC DOE won’t let Jewish staffer stuck in Israel work remotely: ‘Just sickens me’

The city Department of Education is refusing to let an early-childhood staffer work remotely while stranded in war-torn Israel, raising questions whether it’s simply bureaucratic callousness or antisemitism.

“It just sickens me that I work for a government institution in the USA which preaches equity, harmony and caring for everyone, but in fact there is an exception — for Jews,” Tova Plaut, an instructional coordinator for pre-K classroom teachers, told The Post from Israel.

Plaut, 53, an Orthodox Jew, was visiting relatives for Sukkot when Hamas terrorists attacked on Oct. 7 and war erupted. US airlines immediately suspended all return flights until at least Oct. 31. 

Plaut went on a waiting list for Israeli airline El Al.

She turned down a US government offer to ride a cruise ship to Cyprus or take US chartered flights to Europe because it would be too hard on her 78-year-old mom, who traveled with her.

But, still hunkering down with her family just north of Tel Aviv, she is eager to work until she can get back to New York.

Fully equipped with a computer and Internet service, Plaut asked permission to advise teachers by phone or email and attend Zoom meetings – instead of using her sick and personal days and not working.

Plaut and her co-workers each get seven sick days and three personal days a year.

Tova Plaut, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem last February, was visiting family in Israel when the war broke out.
Courtesy of Tova Plaut

Once that’s used up, she would have to take a non-medical leave of absence — and lose her pay, $76,000 a year, and health insurance.

As of today, she has lost seven days while stuck in Israel.

Last Wednesday, Plaut’s supervisor in the DOE’s Division of Early Childhood Education denied her request to stay on the job, saying “remote work is not allowed in Israel as it is a restricted country.” 

City officials refused to explain any such restrictions.

Two days later, the supervisor forwarded an email from a DECE finance director, saying “the same rules apply as any employee who takes vacation and has extenuating circumstances that prohibit them from returning on their expected date. They are required to use their leave until they return.”

Tova Plaut and husband Dan at the Western Wall in happier times.
Courtesy of Tova Plaut

That email also said “rules for Tele-work vary and is (sic) dependent on network security.”

“This is complete nonsense,” an insider said.

The email concludes, “While we are all hoping that she returns safely and quickly, these are the options available for her that have been vetted by legal.”

The decision to deny Plaut’s request was made by the Human Resources division and General Counsel’s office, a DOE spokesman confirmed.

Ironically, General Counsel Liz Vladeck and her staffers regularly work from home, said a source familiar with the matter.

“It’s hypocrisy,” the insider said.

Tova Plaut’s daughter, Nina, 15, packing supplies in NY for displaced families in Israel.
Courtesy of Tova Plaut

“They’re denying someone in a war-torn country when she (Vladeck) has a work-from-home policy for herself and members of her office.”

Vladeck did not respond to a request for comment. A DOE spokesman would not discuss it.

Plaut and fellow pre-K instructional coordinators worked remotely during the pandemic, and continue to do so periodically this school year.

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The DOE even launched a pilot program that permits them to work from home once or twice a week.

Nearly all meetings are held on Zoom.

While ordered not to work, “I’m still receiving texts from my teachers, responding to their emails, and giving them the support or resources they need,” Plaut said.

“I would never leave anybody hanging. I’m a professional and care about the people I work with.”

Plaut worked remotely without a problem last Tuesday, Oct. 10, when she was due back, but got the directive midday Wednesday – in the middle of a meeting – to stop.

“I got cut off at the knees without explanation to the (early-childhood) program,” she said.

“So I was really, in a lot of ways, publicly humiliated because it’s very much against my professional standards not to show up.”

What also irks: None of the DOE’s top leaders has called her to express concern, ask about her wellbeing or offer help, Plaut said.

In response, DOE spokesman Nathanial Styer said Friday, “Our very first priority is the safety and wellbeing of this staff member, which is why we are working to bring her home as well as everything possible to be supportive during this time of duress.”

But Plaut said she hadn’t heard from the DOE with any offers of help or efforts to bring her home.

A colleague is furious about the DOE’s treatment of Plaut, calling it “callous and rude.”

“They don’t communicate with us anyway, but under these extreme situations, you would think that they would have,” the co-worker said. “I’m not going to say that this is antisemitic, but it doesn’t look good.”

In response to the Post’s inquiries, DOE officials said the HR and legal divisions “need to review our policies” for employees “who might find themselves unable to come home due to extraordinary circumstances.” 

For now, Plaut and her mother are housed with Plaut’s married daughter and three grandkids. Plaut has three other adult children, and a 15-year-old daughter, who stayed back in New York.

As required in Israel, the daughter’s home is outfitted with a bomb shelter.