The COVID-19 case surge has now struck dozens of County of Orange offices that carry out vital public services and government functions, says the leader of a workers’ union representing roughly 18,000 of the county’s public sector employees.

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The county’s fourth wave, propelled by the Omicron variant, has also delayed trash pickup in Santa Ana, where city officials reported a driver shortage affecting their municipal waste-hauling service.

“The number of County facilities currently in ‘outbreak status’ is alarming,” said Orange County Employees Association General Manager Charles Barfield, in a Wednesday written response to Voice of OC questions. 

As of Tuesday, 37 county facilities are in “outbreak status” and five could be in “major outbreak status,” Barfield said. 

Yet County of Orange officials, when asked about the situation that same day, gave a starkly different account of the situation. 

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“HR COVID Response isn’t aware of any outbreaks in the County at the present time. Outbreaks are declared by the Public Health Department as they investigate to determine if […] the cases have an epidemiological connection,” said County of Orange spokesperson Molly Nichelson in a written response to Voice of OC questions Wednesday.

That’s because County of Orange officials say they’re using technical standards set by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to measure outbreak situations.

The county Risk Management team “monitors and works with departments on multiple cases which can be considered minor or major. Multiple cases under [standards set by Cal/OSHA] are non-epidemiological related,” Nichelson wrote in her response. 

“The County of Orange is following Cal/OSHA ETS safety measures on positive reported cases,” Nichelson added.

Some workers at the county’s Social Services Agency – one of the county’s largest departments, which administers assistance programs for disabled, poor, and elderly residents – say there is indeed a problem.

And they’re calling county leaders out while demanding remote work accommodations, in one joint letter they wrote anonymously to County of Orange CEO Frank Kim, which reported as many as 29 virus cases out of the Social Services Agency as of Jan. 11.

In a Wednesday emailed response to the letter, Kim said the county needs to keep in-office government services available to some extent, citing the need for in-person administration of critical public services.

“Our charge as County staff is to serve the citizens of Orange County. We cannot shut down our services that we provide, particularly those services that are critical for the safety, security, health and welfare of citizens we serve,” Kim wrote.

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Kim was on vacation when reached over the phone for comment earlier in the day, but – reacting to Barfield’s outbreak numbers – said this:

“We notify labor in terms of the number of cases that are reported at locations, but it’s also important to distinguish between whether those cases are from employees actually in the office or if they’re out in the field or are employees who are telecommuting.”

Kim said the data “has to be looked at, but obviously, any time you have cases in a workplace setting, in-office, that’s something we look at very carefully and it’s contact-traced.”

The Social Services clerical staff’s letter isn’t dated but appears to have been written this month, citing case numbers since Jan. 11. 

It reads:

“Yes, many people have been vaccinated, and yes, the County has provided us with face masks, and sanitizer to help us stay safe in our building. While we appreciate these measures being taken, this is clearly still not enough because we are still receiving a high enough number of positive cases to be labelled as a building with not just a minor outbreak, but a MAJOR OUTBREAK.”

Despite pleas for remote work accommodations, the Social Services employees’ letter states, agency administrators “still denied allowing clerical employees access to telecommute.” 

Management’s reasoning is “that telecommuting was not as productive as staff thought it was;” however, “several programs were able to work proficiently to get everything done as needed,” the letter reads.

The clerical workers “have raised their voices to protest management’s failure to respond to their pleas for more telecommuting,” Barfield said on Wednesday.

“We are meeting with the agency this afternoon (Wednesday) to address those concerns,” Barfield said.

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Perhaps “more alarming” is “how backlogged the County’s contact tracing unit may be,” Barfield added, “leaving workers to speculate if their workplaces are safe or not.” 

“Clearly the County has again been caught unprepared to handle the rapid increase in positive cases,” Barfield said. “County workers, especially in Social Services Agency […] are demanding swift remedial action to keep them safe.”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the uncertainty and health safety issues confronting county workers seem to be a repeating occurrence. 

After the pandemic began, in 2020, Voice of OC reported outbreak situations at the Social Services Agency that year as well.

“Clerical workers were the last people in this building who were offered a telecommuting schedule,” the letter to CEO Kim reads. “We only ever got to telecommute part time. And we were the first group of people to have that telecommuting schedule revoked.” 

All the while, the letter states, “many supervisors are allowed to work safely in their own homes. This is one of the many examples of how we have been severely underappreciated by upper management.” 

“They don’t understand the work we do and wouldn’t be able to train new staff themselves if they had to.” 

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Meanwhile, the case surge has also thrown a wrench this month into services as basic as trash collection in Santa Ana, one of Orange County’s most densely populated cities. 

City officials were informed by their municipal waste hauler, Waste Management, that there’s a worker shortage due to COVID-19, said City Hall spokesperson Paul Eakins in a brief Wednesday phone interview. 

“Waste Management is still collecting residential curbside recycling carts that were not serviced last week. In addition, less than 10% of residential curbside recycling carts scheduled for Monday were not collected,” reads a Wednesday email from the City of Santa Ana to residents. 

“These combined issues are impacting this week’s recycling collection services. Delays due to COVID-19 cases may continue,” it continues.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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