As the County of Orange prepares to bring back staff who have been working from home, attention is shifting to what kinds of safeguards will be in place to protect workers and the public from coronavirus.
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Among the measures being pursued: adding plexiglass at public counters and implementing new guidelines on physical distancing in the workplace.
“What you’ll see is essentially a phased re-opening of county government,” county CEO Frank Kim said at a news conference last Thursday in response to questions from Voice of OC.
“We have 17,000 employees distributed over dozens and dozens of different sites…Where we have public counters, we’re putting in the plexiglass, and that will be done in the first week or so in June. So once that is complete you’ll see us begin to phase in the opening of those public counters” in the middle to end of June, he added.
The largest union for county workers has called on the county to work more closely with workers and fully implement new re-opening guidelines from CalOSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency. Those include re-arranging work spaces and meetings to maintain physical distancing, limiting how many people are in elevators at any given time, and strongly encouraging facial coverings.
“OCEA members must have safe workplaces, and the County must involve them in that effort,” wrote Charles “CB” Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), in a May 13 letter to Kim.
A safety survey in late April found 44 percent of public workers represented by OCEA reported not feeling safe at work, and 40 percent reported they didn’t have proper personal protective equipment, Barfield wrote.
“It is clear frontline workers need more safety, more security, and more stability,” he added. The CalOSHA guidelines “can help provide a framework of safety, security, and stability that will provide consistent and effective commonsense solutions to the challenge of reopening not just County offices, but also other County workplaces.”
The county’s chief executive later publicly committed to following the state guidelines.
“We will meet any CalOSHA requirements,” Kim said at last week’s news conference. “That is a requirement.”
“We have set up a strike team of our human resources group, our risk management group, and our facilities group. And the three of them have come together and established a checklist for each of the facilities that we have county employees in. So department heads are required to go through and check off all of the requirements,” Kim added.
“And once they have met that need, then it’s up to each department head to start phasing in their employees appropriately.”
Union leaders are calling for clearer direction for department executives, saying some haven’t embraced their responsibility to keep workers safe.
“The County has an obligation, not just to its workers and their families, but to the entire community, to provide each one of them with a safe working environment every single day,” Barfield said in a statement Saturday.
“At this point not all department and agency executives have embraced that simple responsibility. Perhaps something has been lost in translation, but we need clear and consistent direction, not just a suggestion, to keep our front line public servants safe.”
“OCEA hopes County leadership and the Board of Supervisors take their responsibility for worker safety as an absolute mandate. We will monitor workplace conditions closely to ensure they do.”
Kim, the county’s chief executive, said his office will make sure each department meets the safety standards in their checklist.
“The county executive office will be reviewing to ensure that all departments have met the criteria for safe re-opening,” Kim said in an interview Friday. “My expectation is that all county departments will follow the safety protocol checklist.”
The union says they continue to have concerns about oversight.
“They may have a checklist but there was no directive from the CEO to each agency to submit a plan on how they were going to transition. No clear indication that there truly is oversight. Decentralized structure allows for varying degrees of compliance,” Barfield said via email.
Kim said he disagrees with that characterization, and declined to specify further.
Supervisor Don Wagner said the county is giving top priority to the safety staff and the public as they re-open more government offices.
“The safety of our employees and the people with whom they interact are the top two county priorities as we re-open county government. I expect telecommuting to continue where possible. In addition, masks, physical distancing, and increased hand washing and sanitizing protocols will also be in place.”
Getting input from workers should be a key part of the return-to-work plans, Supervisor Doug Chaffee said in an interview Monday.
“[This will] unfold slowly and safety. We do our best, and always try to keep worker input in the equation,” Chaffee said.
“This has been an issue in the past, where with so many departments and so many different people…you don’t always get the same consistent result,” Chaffee said. “It’s something that I want to be personally alert to, so that we have consistent follow through for worker safety.
When union leaders have concerns about department executives not protecting worker safety, Chaffee said he would follow up to deal with it.
“If we hear about it, we’ll clamp down on it. At least I will do my best to do that,” Chaffee said, saying he would work both with unions and the county human resources office.
Large portions of the county workforce have been working from home since March, when the state’s stay-at-home orders began.
At one of the county’s largest departments – the Social Services Agency – 40 to 50 percent of the staff have been working from home on any given day, said spokeswoman Laura Turtzer. The department had about 4,500 employees as of last year.
Worker safety concerns have also been raised at county jails, where coronavirus outbreaks have infected hundreds of staff and inmates.
In March, the sheriff’s deputies’ union said their members were facing a shortage of protective equipment that put them and inmates at risk in the jails. They asked Sheriff Don Barnes to authorize the early release of nonviolent inmates, which he started doing two days later.
Most of the Sheriff’s Department’s sworn staff – including patrol deputies and jail staff – have continued to work in their usual assignments, said Carrie Braun, the department’s chief spokeswoman.
“The Department has begun to bring staff who were telecommuting back in a phased approach while implementing additional safety measures such as increased sanitization and physical distancing where possible,” Braun said. “Our next phase will include reopening of in-person services that are provided to the public.”
The deputies’ union leader said the safety situation at the jails has improved, after testing was made available to staff.
Deputies also are no longer reporting shortages of protective equipment in jails, Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said in an interview with Voice of OC Monday.
“We haven’t had too many concerns of late from the jails,” Viramontes said. “We’re getting tested, and they’re giving us enough…avenues to go through to make sure we get the proper testing done.”
“They’re looking out for everybody, whether it be the people we’re safeguarding there, or the employees.”
Deputies also have been taking safety precautions to protect their family members from coronavirus, like taking off their shoes before returning home, immediately taking off their outer layers of clothing and jumping in the shower “to ensure we don’t expose our families” to the virus, Viramontes said.
County officials said in early May that they expanded testing at county jails to all county health workers and Sheriff’s Department staff under its custody command.
Health workers at the jails, who are under the county Health Care Agency and not the Sheriff’s Department, have had limited access to gowns and masks, according to their union.
“I am told that they have limited gowns requiring them to sanitize via an autoclave and N95 masks,” with health workers required to reuse them, Barfield said Monday.
In some county departments, certain staff will continue working from home if their department director determines they can do so productively, Kim said at last weeks’ news conference.
“You may have some administrative staff that are telecommuting, and they’re able to maintain their productivity doing so. So long as they can remain productive, I have encouraged my department heads to continue telecommuting,” he said.
County officials have not publicly announced a timeline for when they plan to bring county workers back, aside from the mid-to-late June opening of public counters.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.