Sonoma County Health Services workers ordered back to work say they are exposed to COVID

Union members say scrapping remote work option is not a solution.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t keep going,” said Paul Foster, a public health accountant and Local 1021 official. “We were able to close the fiscal year in July 2021. Granted, the past year has been tough. But we did it.”

As part of Rivera’s policy, employees have been given the opportunity to request full-time remote work. It just became another bone of contention. A number of employees have actually asked through managers to work from home. (Rivera said the number was “10+.”) Each request was denied, she acknowledged.

“Exceptions, which may be formal requests for housing with accompanying medical records, would have gone to the health care human resources department and followed the county’s standard practices and procedures for medical housing,” wrote county spokesman Matt Brown in an email. “The county could not comment on the status of those who have requested medical housing because it is proprietary information.”

Exposure reports are piling up

Treasury officials were also angered by what they perceived as lax COVID protections at Neotomas Avenue, the health care administrative headquarters.

When they first returned, nobody had to wear a mask; this mandate came a few days later. There was no additional system of social distancing. And the air conditioner temporarily stopped circulating several times. At one point, someone opened doors to the patio outside the break room and pushed open two interior doors with floor fans to increase airflow.

“No county facilities were under a mask mandate … however, there have always been mask recommendations,” Rivera said when asked to comment on those complaints. “Our building filtration systems have been analyzed by County Risk (managers) and reviewed for additional upgrades needed to maintain adequate air quality standards for smoke and COVID regulations. If additional equipment was required, it was purchased and installed. We also have air washers throughout the building for added protection.”

Still, the COVID exposure notifications came within days of returning to personal work — on May 16, June 2, June 3 and most recently Wednesday.

On Thursday, eight healthcare workers were absent from the Neotomas office due to coronavirus symptoms or exposure. Those known to be in close contact with an infected colleague were told they did not need to be quarantined, as confirmed in staff notifications shared with The Press Democrat.

family members at risk

Several employees said their circumstances had changed during the pandemic and it had not been easy for them to quickly return to work on site. For some, it had to do with vulnerable relatives.

“When we returned to the office, I stayed with a family member who works as a caretaker with elderly patients and another member of the household who is immunocompromised from many underlying health conditions,” said a tax clerk, who asked her names not to be used because she fears reprisals. “I didn’t feel safe when we started receiving notices of exposure.”

For Foster, giving up remote work has had an immediate and tangible impact on his family.

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

Foster’s father, who turned 84 in May, lived with him during the pandemic. When healthcare workers returned to the office three days a week for the first time, Foster said he could no longer ensure his father was eating properly and was 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 at my house.”

Foster’s father was discharged from the hospital on Tuesday.

Morale at Neotomas is low, workers insist. And with it the presence. As of June 2, Joly wrote, by her count, 16 people were busy in the finance department — about half the workforce. On Tuesday she wrote that there were at least 12 people left.

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

“An extra thing” for companies

Healthcare is far from the only work environment where virus-related risk calculations need to be performed. The county’s epidemiology team is currently investigating 18 reports of possible outbreaks at workplaces, including grocery and retail stores, manufacturing plants and wineries, said Brown, the county spokesman.

While Sonoma County businesses are not seeing the severe staffing shortages of the first wave of Omicrons in early January, shortages persist, said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. It’s not just because of COVID.

“It’s like the one extra thing that makes it harder,” Rumble said. “It’s like, ‘We can’t fill a handful of positions. On top of that, with the positions I have, we have to work around a sabbatical due to illness.’”

It all adds up to a difficult calculus for business leaders: when is it safe to gather in an office, and which locations are most likely to benefit from face-to-face interaction? Rumble generally prefers to open up as much as possible.

“The CDC tells us this is now endemic,” he said. “And an infection today doesn’t mean the same as it did in March 2020. When we hear from the highest medical authority and they say this is endemic, then we need to start living our lives as if it were endemic. That means we need to get our shots and get on with our lives.”

Rivera has viewed the return to healthcare work as temporary. It is expected to remain in effect until July 31, the fiscal year end. After Wednesday’s meeting, Jana Blunt — president of SEIU Local 1021 and associate with the Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor-Registrar of Voters — has her doubts.

“She has not been able to provide an estimated date, but our conclusion is that there will be no time in the future when Ms. Rivera will again find telecommuting appropriate when the determining factor is whether there is a backlog of work,” said Blunt.

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

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

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or [email protected]. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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