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Sonoma County employers grapple with work contingencies during coronavirus pandemic

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How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
• Avoid touching your eyes and face
• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow
• Stay home when ill
• Get a flu shot, and it’s not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county’s 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The altered workplace in the era of coronavirus was evident in a meeting room Thursday at Redwood Credit Union in Santa Rosa.

Inside, a group of employees were testing the Microsoft online video platform for virtual meetings with Matthew Metzger, Redwood’s technology solutions manager, on his laptop at home.

“You do it once, you get pretty good at it. Getting everyone to do it for the first time, you need to plan a longer meeting,” said John Wheatley, vice president of insurance services.

Wheatley soon found out firsthand as he logged in with his smartphone and triggered major feedback in the room before adjusting his microphone volume level.

The drill became more common last week as the 700-employee credit union had two workers from each department work from home effective March 9, in case the growing public health crisis gets much worse. More waves of Redwood employees — those who don’t serve customers at 19 regional branches — are slated to start working remotely this week.

“This is day to day,”’ said Brett Martinez, Redwood’s chief executive officer, who has been coordinating contingency staffing and operational plans for more than three weeks with an outside consultant.

The extensive emergency preparation is something Redwood has gone through previously after the 2017 Tubbs fire came perilously close to its Cleveland Avenue headquarters and last year during the workplace disruptions caused by the Kincade fire and PG&E’s intentional power cuts.

But this global pandemic, which is rapidly spreading throughout the United States, presents a much different set of challenge for the credit union.

“This is significantly different in many, many ways,” Martinez said, noting the uncertain length of time the crisis could linger and the possible financial toll on customers if the virus indeed spreads through the community. “It’s way more complicated.”

Redwood is among North Bay employers scrambling and adjusting to protect employees and customers from a potential local coronavirus outbreak and still continue to operate. The issue is especially complicated in Sonoma County since the region is deeply reliant on tourism, with 7.5 million visitors annually, and 1 out of 10 jobs depends on the sector to some extent. The local economy is not comprised primarily of office workers who can log in from home like tech firms in San Francisco, but rather a wide array of servers, bartenders, tour guides and hotel workers who earn money when they work at their establishments.

Taking steps against outbreak

Besides implementing work-at-home arrangements when possible, many area employers already have halted indefinitely nonessential business travel. Workers with flu-like symptoms have been asked to stay home. Efforts have started to do more thorough cleaning at county taprooms, wine-tasting rooms and offices. Other new policies were expected to come depending on the local severity of coronavirus cases and the scope of a potential outbreak.

At Community Market, employees have been instructed to wash their hands with soap every 30 minutes and gloves are available for workers, not just food preparation staff who are required to wear them, said Melissa Minton, general manager.

“First and foremost, we try to educate staff about how to take of themselves as they face many people,” Minton said.

The stores in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol combined have about 1,250 customers daily, and staff has seen a run on hand sanitizer and homeopathic treatments, especially mushroom immunity boosters.

How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
• Avoid touching your eyes and face
• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow
• Stay home when ill
• Get a flu shot, and it’s not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county’s 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa has issued new policies. Among them: employee attendance at external business meetings with 50 or more people have been canceled. Internal meetings with more than 25 people either will be postponed or held virtually, company spokeswoman Galen McCorkle said.

One of the largest private employers and tourist attractions in Sonoma County, Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, was still operating as usual as of Friday, but monitoring the fluid situation. The casino employs 2,000 and attracts many visitors from all over the Bay Area, many of whom arrive by the busload. But pressure was mounting late last week on top tourist spots as county health officials issued an order banning all gatherings of 250 or more until further notice. It was unclear Friday night how or if the casino would be affected by the public health order.

“Graton Resort & Casino is committed to protecting the safety and well-being of our guests and team members. We’re monitoring the situation around COVID-19 closely and are staying fully updated on CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to manage the situation,” general manager Lana Rivera said in a Thursday statement. “We also remain in regular contact with Sonoma County authorities and we’re prepared to pursue all appropriate action as needed.”

Offer employees flexibility

Perhaps the most significant effect the virus has had so far on local businesses came at Keysight Technologies. The company, one of the county’s biggest employers, closed its north Santa Rosa campus for four days over concern that one of its employees was exposed to the coronavirus on a foreign trip. Keysight, which employs 1,500 people here, reopened March 9 after that employee tested negative for COVID-19.

“Keysight offers its employees the flexibility to work and meet remotely, and is encouraging all employees to make use of the available tools by working from home to the extent possible and meet using remote technology,” Hamish Gray, senior vice president at Keysight, said in a statement.

During last year’s evacuations and power shut-offs during the Kincade fire, many Sonoma County businesses were caught by surprise regarding the disruption to their employees’ lives, said Mark Norton, a manager at Agility Recovery, a Denver-based firm that helped local companies contend with post-fire challenges.

Considering sick leave

Coronavirus presents several operational hurdles for county businesses.

“We are seeing that many of our (commercial) customers are unable to create a productive work-from-home setting for their employees,” Norton said by email. “We have also been asked to set up mobile command centers and create social distancing work environments to keep employees healthy.”

At Redwood, the concern for workers made Martinez decide any credit union employee who gets sick during the pandemic would not have to dip into their sick time allotment and worry about running out of time off. “We are covering them without them having to touch it,” the credit union CEO said of paid sick days.

However, such generous benefits are not the case for many North Bay workers. California law requires a minimum of three sick days a year for full-time workers. San Francisco has gone even further with an ordinance that requires companies with fewer than 10 employees to provide at least five days annually of paid sick leave and those with more than 10 workers at least nine sick days a year. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, House Democrats approved an emergency bill on Friday night that would require employers to provide 14 days of paid sick leave during a public health emergency, as well as three months of paid family and medical leave.

Employee advocates say additional sick days make sense from a public health perspective since one study estimated employees who worked while having the swine flu in 2009 caused the infection of as many as 7 million of their co-workers.

“Right now, paid sick leave is extremely important in the face of coronavirus,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Center at UC Berkeley. “There are a large number of workers who are living paycheck to paycheck.”

That group includes Amanda Carles of Santa Rosa. She has two part-time jobs and is an in-home support service worker taking care of her daughter, 38, who has Down syndrome. As a contract worker for the County of Sonoma, Carles gets two sick days in 2020 and three days in 2021. Last year, she used the one sick day she received to recover from shoulder surgery.

“One day is kind of not enough,” said Carles, 73, who recently had to leave her apartment in Cotati after a new landlord bought the property and raised the monthly rent. After her surgery last year, Carles’ neighbor helped with care of her daughter, which was critical since she couldn’t drive and go to other jobs as a substitute teacher and Spanish interpreter.

“Working from home with my daughter, ... I would be endangering her if I was working while sick,” said Carles, a concern likely on the minds of her fellow 5,000 in-home support service workers countywide. “It’s a tense situation with everyone, and everyone is on edge with this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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