The County of Orange continues struggling with COVID outbreaks among its employees, especially at the Social Services Agency, which handles welfare benefits for many struggling families. 

Workers, and their union, are calling for stricter pandemic protocols, more options to telecommute and moving some of the daily operations to outdoor settings in an effort to curb the virus spread. 

County officials have said they are following state workplace guidelines and taking extra precautions while state law mandates certain services be open to the public, especially welfare benefit application procedures.

“There are a lot of people that are working in the office that never had an option to go home. And these changes directly affect them — constantly being in the office. And, they have been incredibly flexible, they have been open to the constant changes of working at the window, at the lobby,” said Sara Ghanbariami, an eligibility technician at the Social Services Agency.

She said many of her colleagues have contracted the virus over the course of the pandemic.

“If we are serving the most needy, when does our health and our safety come into play? Because if we need to help those most in need in society, we also need to be healthy,” Ghanbariami said in a Zoom interview last week. 

Hanh Le, also an employment eligibility specialist, said the employee notification system has been spotty.

“The tracking system has never been a good thing. That has always been a concern for all of us,” Le said, during the same interview.

Other employees interviewed echoed the same concerns surrounding COVID exposure notifications.

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Many of the Social Services Agency workers interviewed by Voice of OC over the past week said they want management to switch back to accepting benefit applications outdoors — where residents fill out eligibility forms outside the offices as much as possible.

“They are still in a room full of possibly unvaccinated people, unmasked people, with no distancing guidelines. So having them in the building is a risk,” said Jose Balderas, an eligibility technician for the Social Services Agency. 

County data reviewed by Voice of OC last Wednesday showed at least 71 employees in all have been exposed to the virus this month.

That number has since increased. 

At a Monday news conference, county Board of Supervisors member Katrina Foley said 103 employees have tested positive for the virus this month as of Friday.

Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, said the current safety measures aren’t working. 

For instance, the county allows for people to “self attest” that they’ve been vaccinated, which allows them to drop their masks.

Basically, if someone enters a county building without a mask, county officials consider that a self attestation the person is fully vaccinated.

“The county chose to adopt a less stringent standard, but it’s still compliant with CALOSHA (the state workplace safety board),” Barfield said in response to Voice of OC’s questions. 

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County officials have struggled with the masking issue and self attestation concerns for months.

[Read: OC Supervisors Grapple With Letting Vaccinated People Ditch Masks in County Buildings]

State guidelines let local governments and businesses implement self attestation practices, a vaccine verification system or simply requiring everyone wear masks.

Barfield said the outbreaks show current self-attestation protocols aren’t effective.

“When you look at the statistics, it’s not working,” he said.

Foley, who’s been pushing for universal masking policies inside county buildings, lambasted the vaccine verification procedure — especially at county supervisors’ meetings, where many residents rail against vaccines and pandemic protocols.

“I believe that this self attestation by no mask is a joke and it’s not working,” she said. 

Demonstrators gather to protest what they say are vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines on May 11, 2021, before the Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The union also wants to shift some of the daily operations back outside, like when residents apply for benefits.

“That certainly is backed up by the stats that we’re seeing and hope that we continue to see the county take very common sense steps,” Barfield said. “We know that certain services have to be delivered in person, but that doesn’t have to be in close confined areas.” 

At least three social service eligibility offices were put on outbreak status as of last week, according to data reviewed by Voice of OC.

“Based on these Cal/OSHA regulations, it was determined there was a COVID-19 outbreak in your workplace, and you were in the workplace during the COVID-19 high-risk exposure period. However, this does not mean that you were directly exposed to COVID-19,” reads an Aug. 10 Social Services Agency memo to its employees.

The memo was sent to workers at the office in Orange, off State College Boulevard. The agency has offices scattered across the county.

“If you have been identified as a close contact, you will receive a separate notification from Employee Health Services,” the memo states.

All of the exposed employees at that office will have to mask up because of the outbreak, according to the memo. 

“[Guidelines] require employees in the exposed group to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, when indoors or when outdoors and less than six feet from another person, until the outbreak has ended,” reads the memo.

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County officials have said they are following state workplace guidelines and state law mandates certain services be open to the public.

Jamie Cargo, a spokesperson for the Social Services Agency, said state officials require essential employees to be in the offices to help residents apply for and receive benefits and other social programs.

“During difficult times, SSA must ensure that clients have access to basic services in a timely manner. This may include meeting clients in a manner that they would like to be served and addresses access constraints for those who may not have access to the internet or a phone,” Cargo said in a Thursday email.

At a news briefing Friday, county CEO Frank Kim said employees are still screening people’s temperatures and other safety measures are being provided, like masks and plexiglass.

“Many of our locations that have high concentrations of on site employees have on site testing,” Kim said. 

He also said telework is generally available to certain employees of the county workforce.

“As a general rule, the county still allows telework options. But once the reopening occurred in the health orders from the state … it was important for us to assure that all avenues of access were granted.” 

Meanwhile, Barfield said the workplace safety protocols aren’t consistent throughout the county.

“The county culture where you have decentralized authority … it lends itself to widely varying execution (of safety policies),” Barfield said. “There’s no enforcement there. That’s where our concern lies.” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.

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