Yamhill Valley News Register - Employees Say County Not Taking Pandemic Seriously

Employees say county not taking pandemic seriously
By Nicole Montesano, Yamhill News-Register, April 6, 2020

Yamhill County officials are not taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and are making work-from-home requirements difficult and punitive, unlike neighboring Oregon counties facing the same challenges, several employees told the News-Register. 

“I don’t feel like they’re treating it like the state of emergency the state’s in right now, or as serious as the governor wants it to be,” said Michelle Carillo, an office specialist who works in the Department of Health and Human Services. “I don’t feel like they’re treating it like that, or treating staff like that.”

County Administrator Ken Huffer disagreed with the employees’ assessment. 

“We’re taking this very seriously,” Huffer said. “If anything, we’ve moved very quickly to move a lot of positions to be able to work via telework, which is brand new to the county.” 

Of approximately 600 total employees — a mix of full- time and part-time sta -- about 275 are working from home, Huffer said. Those still reporting to the office include county administration and front office staff. 

“There’s a lot you can’t do remotely,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be looking to the county for a lot of critical services that we can’t just stop providing, even in a crisis.” 

Compared to neighboring counties, however, Yamhill County’s process is arduous, union representative Paige Barton told the News-Register. 

Employees must complete a five-page form asking a supervisor to work from home, and then fill out logs documenting their activities every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on their department. 

By contrast, neighboring Polk County issued a directive that all employees able to do so should work from home until further notice — no special request required, said Barton, council representative of Oregon AFSCME Council 75.

Washington County adopted a COVID-19 telecommuting agreement on March 13, that simply requires employees to sign and date it, after a conversation with their supervisors. 

“Other counties are not implementing similar requirements to telework,” Barton said. “The CDC guidance to employers about COVID in the workplace recommends flexible telework policies and flexible work hours, like staggered shifts to facilitate social distancing. 

“While many employers recognize telework as their contribution to stopping the spread of coronavirus, Yamhill County remains concerned with exerting control over our members.” 

Huffer said the log in requirements vary by department but are intended to let managers determine how effectively employees are using their time, so they can decide whether to assign them higher-priority work. 

“It’s a data collection tool for managers. The managers are asked for reports back on what employees are working on, and they also have the di culty of reporting back to their directors on what employees are doing, and how effective they are being in the telework position,” he said. 

On the whole, the county’s response is inadequate, said Mark Shroyer, a member of the Public Works staff. 

“They see it as the common flu. They don’t see it as life-threatening,” he said.

County employees also told the News-Register: 

  • Some people exposed to the COVID-19 virus were told to continue working; 
  • Employees’ concerns about possible exposure have been dismissed by supervisors; 
  • Some employees in the Health and Human Services Department are being told to use their own sick leave to compensate for gaps in pay when the county doesn’t have sufficient work for them to do from home;
  • Some sta are not being given the work-from-home option;
  • Employees in the Public Works department are not being given sufficient cleaning supplies for public spaces and shared trucks and equipment;
  • Bathrooms in the Public Works department are not being cleaned; 
  • Social distancing is not being practiced in the Public Works department. 

Carillo, who said she was initially denied a request to work full-time from home, even after her young child was tested for COVID-19 in mid-March, said she finds the reporting requirements onerous. 

“As soon as I start one of my tasks ... I’m on a roll, and then I have to stop every 30 minutes and say ‘yes, I’m still doing this.’ It seems to me not an efficient way to use my time,” she said. “We’re all adults, and we all know that we should be accountable when we’re working from home.” 

Instead, she leaves her teenagers in charge of her youngest child, and drives to the office, but feels conflicted about the decision, because she fears being exposed to the virus at work. 

“It feels like the county is doing the bare minimum of what is expected to comply with the governor’s order,” Carillo said. “Other counties are saying, ... ‘We care about you and your family.’” 

Zena Doherty, a member of the county’s Adult Behavioral Crisis Team, sent a letter to county commissioners claiming employees are put in jeopardy by not having paid leave like workers in other counties. 

Additionally, they are constantly coming into contact with clients, law enforcement, and emergency department personnel. 

“We have therapists and peer supports with our CAT team who are trying to provide individualized services for clients who are suicidal and homicidal daily,” she said. “We should be provided the safety net of our funding to be able to either work from home without debate or be paid for our time as we are at risk, putting others at risk, namely our own families.”

Another challenge? Changing work situations. 

Bijoux Harrison-Doherty, a management data analyst at HHS, and vice president of Yamhill County Employment Association said some employees affected by coronavirus cancellations are being told to use their paid time o to cover lost hours. 

It is not fair to ask low-paid employees whose hours are being cut for no fault of their own to cover the loss with their own paid time off, she said. 

“Lots of other counties in Oregon have given their employees more than the bare minimum, and Yamhill County has indicated they are not willing to do more than that,” Harrison-Doherty said. “I just feel like a lot of our employees are being put into an impossible situation and are asking for a little bit of compassion and understanding and are not being given that help.” 

Huffer contended the county has a “very robust bene t package” that provides sick leave. Employees “should be talking to their supervisors and managers about how they’re using their time, what kind of work they’re doing,” if they aren’t getting enough hours, he said. 

Harrison-Doherty said she believes many supervisors are doing the best they can, but the county is suffering from an overall lack of leadership and direction. 

“Our issues are with how the county as a whole is responding to the whole COVID situation,” she said.

When Barton, the union representative, sought clarification on March from Huffer about the issues, he declined to respond, indicating employees needed to communicate with Human Resources or their direct supervisors. 

Huffer wrote in the e-mail that “managers have been encouraged to accommodate remote work when possible,” while allocating personnel “to respond to the current situation or support operations that may be having difficulties with sustaining critical services.” 

On April 2, Huffer told county commissioners that about half the county’s employees are working from home. He said he was encouraging managers to allow employees to do so. 

“I know managers take it very seriously, and they also recognize that the employees, in a crisis like this, are doing their best, and our managers are in the same position, trying to do their best in a difficult time,” he said. 

Employees were initially told to use their own paid sick time or vacation time to remain quarantined. When the county commissioners approved paid administrative leave for those whose doctors recommended two-week self-quarantines for COVID-19, some employees said their doctor’s notes were refused. 

One employee’s note was declined because the doctor had written that she needed to quarantine “due to illness,” but did not write the word COVID-19. Barton said the employee finally had to submit medical records to prove the link. 

James Craver, a shop steward for YCEA and AFSCME Local 1422 and a heavy equipment operator in the Public Works Department, said he encountered a similar problem. 

He and a co-worker learned that an employee of a rock pit they regularly visited for work had been coming in sick, and had children who were awaiting a COVID-19 test, he said. 

Craver said he and his co-worker immediately contacted their supervisor for instructions. 

“His exact words were ‘you did not come into personal contact with him; carry on as usual,’” Craver said. “They did not take it seriously.” 

Craver said he’s especially frustrated because both his wife and son are immunocompromised. He said he took a COVID-19 test on March 31 and is still awaiting the results. 

He said he is sick, but that when he turned in a doctor’s note seeking paid administrative leave, it was denied as insufficient. 

“It took me three days of emailing back and forth between my doctor and Human Resources before I obtained a second note that said basically the same thing, and they eventually accepted that,” he said. 

County Commissioner Casey Kulla said he has heard similar complaints from employees and is trying to address them. 

“While I advocate for the employees at the county, I also have to trust that their employers and ultimately Human Resources and county administration are doing the best they can,” he said. “If employees don’t feel that they are, then obviously things need to change.” 

Kulla said he’s been in contact with Gov. Kate Brown’s office, asking her to include counties in the executive “stay at home” order. 

Commissioner Mary Starrett, responding by e-mail, wrote, “I don’t know that I’d have anything else to add to the basic information you’ve already received about safety policies, working remotely and the various leave options available for employees.” 

Shroyer, an equipment operator at Public Works currently on light duty because of an injury, said he doesn’t feel his department is providing enough employee protection. 

Bathrooms are going uncleaned and the department is not supplying sufficient cleaning materials for shared equipment, nor is it practicing social distancing, he said.

The county should be cutting non-essential road work, to ensure its employees stay healthy for essential tasks, he said. 

“I’m out there risking my life for $18 an hour ... making the roadsides look pretty,” he said. 

On Tuesday, March 10, Barton sent a proposed agreement to the county for employees exposed to COVID-19, as the disease was spreading. 

County attorney Josephine Ko wrote back in response, saying the county was well-prepared to handle the problem and saw no need for the agreement. 

Barton pointed out the county’s prior experience had little to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The county was unconvinced and has not agreed to the union’s requests. However, commissioners have asked for an executive session to be scheduled this week to discuss the issue.

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