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Orange County Social Services Agency Director Debra Baetz earlier this month at a public news conference confidently assured residents and workers her agency took a slew of precautions at its many regional buildings to prevent coronavirus outbreaks.
But Baetz didn’t mention that a host of employees had already tested positive for the virus.
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“Today we’ve entered the third week in some of our social services offices [that] have reopened in what we’re calling our phase one reentry plan,” Baetz said in a July 9 news conference.
Nearly 40 people tested positive for the virus leading up to the news conference and at least five employees tested positive after the July 9 news conference.
“We installed protective barriers and we’re performing enhanced cleaning,” she said. “And all our staff have been outfitted with the appropriate level of equipment.”
One agency employee, speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation, said all the food stamp and welfare applications were processed while the offices were closed to the public.
“We were shut down for about three months,” they said. “The public was getting their services. There really was no reason to open up. But they did.”
Soon after buildings reopened, the employee said their colleagues began testing positive.
During a County of Orange news conference last Thursday, County CEO Frank Kim said he estimated there were about 200 county workers that had tested positive for coronavirus.
At least 45 Social Services Agency employees have tested positive for the virus over the past few months, according to a database provided by an official at the Orange County Employees Association. The bulk of cases happened mid June through July.
County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said 18 different county departments have seen virus cases in its employees, including the Sheriff’s Department, Probation Department and the Social Services Agency.
The agency has numerous offices throughout OC so residents don’t have to drive into the heart of OC government in Santa Ana to apply for a slew of public benefits, like food stamps, welfare and medical coverage. During the pandemic, the agency is encouraging residents to apply online for the benefits since the state has relaxed some eligibility protocols on the application process.
Meanwhile, employees at the Anaheim, Garden Grove, Orange and Santa Ana offices have tested positive.
One employee, also speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation, said agency staff often learn about positive cases from their colleagues.
“Keeping it covered up is really futile because people talk and people know within days that there was an illness or an outbreak.”
Nichelson said county employees can’t be compelled to share medical information with officials.
“Employees are not required to notify the County of their medical conditions. Some employees voluntarily provide that information and the County uses the information to determine if any potential exposure has occurred in any County buildings. The County has protocols which are spelled out below on when there is a case at one of our County facilities with County staff,” Nichelson wrote in a Tuesday email.
When employees do share their positive test results, they have to follow public health orders mandating a quarantine period.
“The County uses known information to best determine if the employee had any close contact (as defined by the County Public Health Order) with any other County employees to determine if any potential exposure to the COVID-19 positive employee occurred in the workplace. Employees that were believed to be in close contact are informed of the possible exposure and asked to follow County Public Health Orders regarding self-quarantining,” Nichelson said.
She also said notifications are sent to people who may have been exposed to the virus and increased cleaning happens in the workspace.
The email notifications use boilerplate language, according to emails obtained by Voice of OC.
“This email is to inform you that a staff member at 1505 E. Warner Ave. Santa Ana, has tested positive for COVID-19. The last day the employee reported to work was on Thursday, June 25, 2020. On Wednesday, July 1, 2020, the employee notified management of a positive COVID-19 test result,” reads a July 1 email to employees of the Warner office.
OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield said county officials aren’t handling virus cases notifications well enough.
“County workers are very concerned – for the safety of themselves, their families and their co-workers, and about the inconsistent and often inadequate way the County has communicated notice of cases to the workforce,” Barfield said in an email last week.
In a July 16 agency digital town hall, Baetz said the virus notices are increasing.
“We send out notifications the moment we have confirmation an employee is positive for COVID,” Baetz said. “I know you have seen a recent uptick in some of those notifications.”
While some employees find them useful, others don’t like them, she said.
“Others of you have asked me to stop those notifications because it increases your anxiety and unless we can tell you who the person is, find no meaning of those notifications.”
One Social Services Agency employee said their colleagues no longer trust communications coming from top-level staff at the agency.
“So everybody communicates in all the regions and we feel when they don’t tell us there’s something more they’re hiding. Even though they tell us they’re not hiding anything, nobody believes it,” they said.
“Who the hell doesn’t want to know?” another employee said.
Another employee said agency workers have to schedule a temperature check, and it only happens at designated times twice a day. They also said tablets that are used to process food stamp and other applications aren’t being cleaned often enough.
“Forget about getting us sick, what if I get a mom and her kid sick?” the employee said.
Barfield said that most county employees don’t feel safe at work and want to keep telecommuting during the pandemic.
“OCEA continues to push the County to communicate more clearly and consistently across all agencies, require telecommuting whenever reasonably feasible, and keep County workers informed while protecting individual privacy,” Barfield said.
Meanwhile, questions are being raised over employees’ ability to work from home.
“For those of you working at home, I wish I could guarantee to you that you could work from home permanently,” Baetz said in the July 16 digital town hall. “We’re going to have to facilitate a greater evaluation of you teleworking.”
She said management will have to review each employee’s circumstances and equipment needs, since some equipment like computers have been taken out of the offices so employees can work from home.
“That may require additional documentation. That’s because we have reached critical mass,” Baetz said. “What I’m trying to communicate … is that we are working very hard to balance the needs of the community as well as your needs.”
One employee said many of their colleagues are reluctant to go back to work because OC’s cases have dramatically increased over the past month.
“With the case surges, many people don’t want to go back in,” the employee said. “In particular our two biggest regions are the two hardest hit in the County, with the highest death counts — Santa Ana and Anaheim.”
Kim estimated publicly last Thursday that about 30 percent of the county workforce is currently telecommuting.
Barfield, the union’s general manager, said an internal survey showed most employees want to continue working from home.
“We know for a fact that most County workers still don’t feel safe at work, as nearly 65% of 1500 OCEA members responding to a recent survey reported. They also conveyed a strong preference to telecommute and felt that in many workplaces arbitrary and senseless management barriers to telecommuting exist.”