Some CA departments now require office work during outbreaks

Several California state departments have for months insisted that employees come into the office at least once a week, in a bid to end full-time telecommuting and establish permanent hybrid models even as the variants of COVID-19 are circulating.

Among departments requiring in-person work, a new sticking point has emerged between managers and employees: what to do in the event of an outbreak in the office.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, often referred to as Cal/OSHA, generally defines an outbreak as three infections in 14 days at a job site. In state offices, yards are usually divisions of departments or other shared spaces between four walls.

With the spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants in California, the state’s reported infection rate recently surpassed last summer’s peak. Some of the infections are triggering outbreak designations in state offices.

In a shift, some departments that used to send employees home for telecommuting during epidemics require them to continue to come to the office with masks.

Cal/OSHA has never ordered employers to bar workers during outbreaks, instead ordering them to require masks and consider additional measures.

The Department of Public Health has periodically updated its guidance on isolation and quarantine for people who have been exposed and who have tested positive. Its latest update, released on June 8, relaxed guidelines for asymptomatic people who have been exposed to the virus while maintaining stricter standards for vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the sick.

State departments have generally followed these guidelines. But some state employees want to see their employers do more than the minimum as reported infections rise.

“Minimum legal requirements fail to protect us from harm,” said Hoang-Van Nguyen, a SEIU Local 1000 representative who works at California’s public employee retirement system.

Franchise Tax Council

The Franchise Tax Board, one of the state’s largest agencies with more than 6,100 employees, has required most employees to work from the office one day a week since May, with plans to add more days in September. . Since June 1, 256 employees have reported COVID-19 infections, spokeswoman Tami Grimes said in an email.

This week, 21 of the 45 yards were in hatching condition, Grimes said. One was recently in “major outbreak” status, with at least 20 infections in 30 days, according to an email to employees.

On July 20, the agency posted guidelines on an internal website that employees in outbreak areas should wear masks indoors.

On July 22, after a union representative raised health and safety concerns and The Sacramento Bee inquired, officials told employees in an email that the agency was making a temporary change to authorize telework for three weeks in epidemic areas.

Michelle Haunold Lorenz, Local 1000 steward at the tax agency, said she suspects her poorly ventilated old office buildings with low ceilings, located near U.S. Highway 50 between Rosemont and Rancho Cordova, provide an environment welcoming to the virus.

She said the union is pushing for the department to allow employees to telecommute as much as they want and that their jobs can accommodate it.

“My main question is whether employees were successfully doing their telecommuting jobs, whether they were allowed to telecommute as much as they needed to feel comfortable and safe in their jobs,” Haunold said. Lorenz. “Whether it’s 100% if that’s what the employee thinks is best for them or one or two days in the office, let the employee choose.”

CalPERS

California’s public employee retirement system, which has about 2,800 employees, has required most workers to report to the office three days a week since March. Call center employees did not have to.

Since early June, 156 employees have reported COVID-19 infections, spokesman Brad Pacheco said in an email. The department has identified 98 transmissions at work, he said.

Only one division — the Pension Services Division — is in outbreak status this week, he said. A floor of the department’s investment office recently left outbreak status after 29 days, he said.

CalPERS allowed telecommuting by default during outbreaks. The department changed course last month but did not adopt a new official policy, he said.

“It’s always on a case-by-case basis,” Pacheco said. “But instead of telecommuting being the default mode, we will ask people to come masked.”

Telecommuting has been authorized for the only division currently in a hatching state, Pacheco said.

Nguyen, the SEIU Local 1000 representative at CalPERS, said the employees she represents want the department to allow full-time emergency telecommuting, or at least reduce the number of days employees must pass through the offices.

Nguyen said a universal mask requirement would also help.

“If it’s as contagious as it is now and anyone can get sick, we need to look at more universal policies,” she said.

Tax and Royalty Administration Department, Office of the State Comptroller

The Department of Tax Administration and Fees has been requiring most of its 4,000 employees to come into the office once a week, spokeswoman Tamma Adamek said in an email.

From June 1 to July 21, 411 employees reported infections, Adamek said. But only 82 appeared in offices during contagious times.

The department had no outbreaks in the past week, she said.

“When we have positive cases in the office during their infectious period or their outbreaks, we post them on our internal website, and we tell team members not to come in if they are not feeling well, if they have family members who are unwell, or if they have any concerns,” she said in the email.

The state comptroller’s office has about 1,500 employees and 175 have reported infections at four facilities since June 1, spokeswoman Jennifer Hanson said in an email.

“(The state comptroller’s office) will not require employees to enter an area that has been defined as an outbreak area,” Hanson said. “If an outbreak is determined, the area will be scheduled for deep cleaning and closed for the established quarantine period.”

When there are outbreaks, employees may telecommute or work in a different area, she said.

A Department of Developmental Services public relations employee said in an unsigned email that the department does not have a policy requiring employees to report to the office during outbreaks. The person did not respond to follow-up questions about the department’s outbreak protocols.

This story was originally published July 27, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Related Sacramento Bee Stories

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. It covers taxes, pensions, unions, state expenses, and the California government. A native of Montana, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.

Jose C. Birney