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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.

Union members say taking away the remote work option is no solution.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t continue to work,” said Paul Foster, a Health Services accountant and Local 1021 officer. “We were able to close the fiscal year-end in July 2021. Granted, this last year was rough. But we were able to it.”

As part of Rivera’s directive, employees were given the option of requesting full-time remote work. It simply became another bone of contention. A number of staffers did indeed request through managers to work from home. (Rivera said the number was “10+.”) Every request has been denied, she acknowledged.

“For those exceptions that may be formal requests for accommodation that would have accompanying medical notes, those would have gone to (Health Services’ human resources department) and would follow the County’s standard practices and procedures for medical accommodations,” county spokesperson Matt Brown wrote in an email. “The County could not comment on the status of those that requested medical accommodation because that is protected information.”

Exposure notices mount

Fiscal staff members also were upset at what they perceived as lax COVID protections on Neotomas Avenue, the administrative headquarters for Health Services.

When they first returned, no one was required to wear a mask; that mandate came several days later. There was no added system of social distancing. And the air conditioning unit temporarily stopped circulating on several occasions. At one point, someone opened doors to the patio outside the break room, and propped open two interior doors with floor fans to increase airflow.

“No county facilities were under a mask mandate … however, mask recommendations have always been in place,” Rivera said when asked for comment on those complaints. “Our building filtration systems were analyzed by County risk (managers) and assessed for any additional upgrades required for appropriate air quality standards for smoke and COVID regulations; if any additional equipment was required it was purchased and installed. We also have air scrubbers throughout the building for additional protection.”

Still, the COVID exposure notifications started to arrive within days of the return to in-person work — on May 16, June 2, June 3 and most recently on Wednesday.

As of Thursday, eight Health Services employees at the Neotomas office were out because of coronavirus symptoms or exposure. Those who were known to be in close contact with an infected colleague were told they didn’t have to quarantine, as confirmed in staff notifications shared with The Press Democrat.

A notification sent by Sonoma County Department of Health Services to employees on June 8, signaling confirmation of COVID cases at the offices on Neotomas Ave. (submitted photo)
A notification sent by Sonoma County Department of Health Services to employees on June 8, signaling confirmation of COVID cases at the offices on Neotomas Ave. (submitted photo)

Family members at risk

Multiple employees said their circumstances had changed during the pandemic, and it wasn’t easy for them to quickly transition back to on-site work. For some, that had to do with vulnerable relatives.

“When we went back to the office, I stayed with a family member who works with elderly patient as a caretaker, and another member in the household who is immune-compromised with many underlying health conditions,” said one fiscal worker who asked that her name not be used because she fears retaliation. “I did not feel safe when we started to receive notices of exposure.”

For Foster, abandoning remote work had an immediate and tangible effect on his family.

“I’m sitting in the hospital right now because I was called back in the office,” he said Tuesday.

Foster’s father, who turned 84 in May, was living with him during the pandemic. When Health Services employees first returned to the office three days a week, Foster said, he was no longer able to make sure his dad was eating properly and staying safe. His sister in Roseville agreed to take him in.

“But she came to Santa Rosa and was exposed to COVID,” Foster said. “If I didn’t have to work, he would have been home with me.”

Foster’s father was released from the hospital Tuesday.

Morale is low at Neotomas, the workers insist. And so is attendance. On June 2, Joly texted, there were 16 people out in the fiscal department, by her count — about half the staff. On Tuesday she texted to say it was still at least 12 people.

“We have six accountants,” Foster said. “Yesterday, I think I was only one in.”

‘One additional thing’ for businesses

Health Services is far from the only work setting having to make virus-related risk calculations. The county’s epidemiological team is currently investigating 18 reports of possible outbreaks at worksites such as grocery and retail stores, manufacturing sites and wineries, said Brown, the county spokesperson.

While Sonoma County businesses aren’t seeing the dire staffing shortages of the first Omicron wave in early January, shortages do persist, said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. That isn’t entirely due to COVID.

“This is like the one additional thing that makes it more challenging,” Rumble said. “It’s like, ‘We can’t fill a handful of positions. And on top of that, the positions I do have, we need to work around time out due to sickness.’”

It all adds up to a difficult calculus for business managers: When is it safe to gather in an office, and which job positions are mostly likely to benefit from face-to-face interaction? Rumble generally favors opening up as much as possible.

“The CDC is telling us this is endemic now,” he said. “And infection today does not mean the same thing as it did in March 2020. If we’re hearing from the highest medical authority, and they’re saying this is endemic, then we need to start living our lives like it’s endemic. That means we need to get our vaccinations and get on with out lives.”

Rivera has framed Health Services return-to-work order as temporary. The assumption is that it will be in effect through July 31, the end of fiscal-year book balancing. After Wednesday’s meeting, Jana Blunt — SEIU Local 1021 president and an employee at the Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor-Registrar of Voters — has her doubts.

“She was unable to provide an estimated date, but our deduction is that there will be no future time where Ms. Rivera feels telework will again be appropriate for staff if the determining factor is whether a backlog of work exists,” Blunt said.

Rivera did not offer a firm timeline in exchanges with The Press Democrat.

“We cannot have programs without stable infrastructure and funding,” she said. “There are times when temporary measures are necessary to address issues of great concern. This is one of those times.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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