Sonoma County Health Services staff, ordered back to workplace, say they’re being exposed to COVID-19
Financial analyst Ann Joly was directed to be in her Santa Rosa office three days a week, starting May 3, after more than two years of teleworking. Ten days after that, her boss expanded the in-person order to five days a week.
The return to cubicle life came at a time of widespread coronavirus transmission in the community. And sure enough, Joly started receiving notices of workplace exposures. Co-workers began to take sick time or vacation days to escape an environment they saw as risky, leaving the Neotomas Avenue office understaffed.
“They were saying there’s a financial crisis, and everybody needs be here through the fiscal year-end business and budget,” Joly said. “In my position, I don’t really do that. My work mostly concerns Medi-Cal. I’ve proven I can do the job at home for more than 24 months. Why do I need to come in and put myself at risk for COVID? Why do any of us have to be put at risk?”
Joly’s experience is undoubtedly common among office workers at this moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, and probably less dramatic than some.
But her complaints stand out. She works at the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, the local agency that oversees COVID safety and guides pandemic policy for the county’s roughly 496,000 residents.
The county is the largest employer here, with about 4,200 workers, and the Health Services Department is one of its largest agencies, at 582 employees.
The department isn’t violating any of its own health orders in requiring fiscal employees to show up in person. On-site office work is currently allowed under the county’s COVID guidelines.
But the department’s new stance has rankled many of the 52 administrative workers affected by the policy. Representatives of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the county’s workers, met with Health Services Director Tina Rivera on Wednesday afternoon to address the disagreement.
It didn’t go well, according to participants on both sides. Thursday, they traded accusations in interviews and statements.
Rivera said that despite the tension, the session ended “amicably with resolution.” Her two interim assistant directors at DHS, both present at the meeting, supported her version.
Rivera, who is just three months into her Board of Supervisors-appointed role as health services director — and is one of the county’s few Black female executives — also offered another view of the wider conflict over in-person work, questioning whether a white man would be held to similar scrutiny.
“Why am I the only department head being asked what I am doing regarding telework and being falsely accused of things that have not occurred?” she wrote in an email to The Press Democrat. “As a woman of color, who has and continues to suffer racial discrimination and microaggressions in this county, this feels as if I am being attacked and singled out.”
Rivera does not dispute that on April 14 she notified certain Health Services staff they would have to return to the office on a temporary basis. Her preference was five days per week. But the county was in the process of creating a countywide remote work policy agreement, and a Health Services human resources manager told Rivera that SEIU might refuse to sign the agreement if she didn’t back off the five-day requirement, she said in an email to The Press Democrat.
“The HR Manager said they may be willing to compromise if I reduced the time to 3 days per week,” Rivera wrote. “I reluctantly agreed.”
After they had returned, she quickly upped the requirement to five days for staff members in the fiscal, revenue management and administrative program support departments. Rivera said it was a necessary move “to address these critical needs ensuring that the most vulnerable within our county have what they need!”
“Select staff and management were directed to temporarily return to the office 5 days per week to address outstanding invoices, backlogs in provider contracts, and late state and federal reports that were exacerbated by staff working from home,” Rivera wrote. “It is my understanding that these issues have been systemic within this Health Department for years and with staff working from home this only compounded the productivity issues.”
Rivera said her decision was based in part on feedback she had received from community health providers.
“The public expects that we have systems in place to make certain that clients have quality services, invoices are paid timely, state and federal deadlines are met, and contracts are executed appropriately,” she said.