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Local Governments Struggle to Obey Their Own Social Distancing Mandates

San Diego City Hall / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This post has been updated to reflect information provided by the city of San Diego after this post initially published.

As governments mandate that schools close, and private businesses implement social distancing protocols, governments themselves have struggled to change how they deliver services and to transition thousands of non-essential employees to telecommuting.

San Diego County and the city of San Diego are undergoing unprecedented changes in how their workforces operate and deliver services during this pandemic. Their struggles in implementing telecommuting and social distancing demonstrate just how hard it is to do.

San Diego County now allows some non-essential employees to telecommute, but the implementation has been slow and uneven. Some departments in which employees could work from home may end up having to use sick time if they don’t come into the office. In the city of San Diego, though the city is shuttering many of its non-essential services, some of those employees are reporting to an office.

“Trust me, this is, like, all we’ve been working on,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, the union for white-collar city workers. “We’ve been having communications with the city since last week about what we’ve been hearing from employees. We all continue to be dealing with the notion that this doesn’t just change day by day, but hour by hour.”

On Friday, the city sent out COVID-19 policies to all of its employees. Voice of San Diego obtained copies of the e-mail and protocols posted that day on the city’s intranet.

Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 can telecommute, if they can, according to the guidance. If not, they would be placed on paid administrative leave, which doesn’t tap into leave that employees accrue as they work. Employees who were exposed to the virus or who had recently traveled to high-risk countries identified by the CDC, could also work from home as they self-quarantine – or receive paid administrative leave, if working remotely was not possible. Employees who otherwise showed symptoms or who had to take care of their children due to school and daycare closures could also work from home, and if that wasn’t possible, they would also receive paid administrative leave.

Later that evening, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new restrictions on people over age 65. There are hundreds of city employees over the age of 65, and the city had to quickly amend its policies to include them.

But Zucchet said that while the city is trying to implement policies based on the state and county recommendations, there’s been variation between departments and managers in what those protocols look like on the ground.

He said he’s heard from union IT representatives that the technological capability to work remotely is better in some departments than others, which has kept some employees coming into the office longer than others.

And some decisions are still left to supervisors who either haven’t fully read or understood the city’s COVID-19 policies.

“Half my time right now is spent dealing employee by employee with people who may think they fit into one of those exceptions, but their supervisor is not allowing them to telecommute, receive paid administrative leave or hasn’t gotten the memo,” he said. “These things aren’t optional.”

On Tuesday morning, Zucchet said he had to deal with a 67-year-old employee who was told unequivocally by her supervisor that she would have to take accrued leave time to self-isolate, instead of receiving paid administrative leave. Another person in the midst of chemotherapy treatment was told if he didn’t want to come into the office, he’d have to use his accrued leave.

“It was a six-page memo and I don’t know if everyone read it or if it fully resonated with everyone,” Zucchet said.

The biggest problem, Zucchet said, is that even after the city shuttered departments to the public, like recreational centers and the planning department, those workers still need to report to the office.

There was a lot of discomfort up until the decision to close Monday that city employees with non-essential jobs were still dealing with the public for services like issuing building permits. They now wonder why, given the risk, they are still being asked to come into the office.

“We’re encouraging the city to shut down everything it can shut down and send employees home,” Zucchet said. “I think that’s the trend that has happened over the past couple of days and it may or may not continue.”

Craig Gustafson, a city spokesman, said the city “has transitioned to prioritize essential operations – police, fire, water, wastewater, trash pickup, etc. – to ensure that residents continue to get the critical services they need during this trying time.”

The city’s police and fire departments are fully staffed and will continue all public health and safety functions. The executive management teams from all mayoral departments continue to report to their physical workplace, Gustafson said.

Staff members from communications, development services, environmental services, homeless strategies, human resources, information technology, public utilities, the treasurer’s office and several others will still continue to report to their physical workplaces, though “many of these employees may also be telecommuting, if possible,” Gustafson said.

Other department staff members from the Citizens Advisory Board, Commission for Arts & Culture, Commission on Gang Prevention, debt management, sustainability and several other offices were allowed to start telecommuting on Tuesday.

“All employees who are reporting to physical workplaces are asked to please maintain a safe social distance (six feet or more), avoid gatherings in confined areas, and keep workspaces clean,” Gustafson said.

The county has faced similar issues.

On Monday, the county’s chief administrative officer, Helen Robbins-Meyer, in an email to all county employees obtained by the Voice of San Diego, described the county’s transition to teleworking for non-essential employees.

“We provide essential public services, often to our most vulnerable residents,” Robbins-Meyer wrote. “Those must, and will, continue. How we do that will have to change, because we need to follow the social distancing guidelines from our health experts…. We are going to transition to as much telework – working from home – as possible …. I’ve said several times recently that this public health crisis will require great flexibility on everyone’s part. You have demanding work normally, and these circumstances are making it even more challenging.”

Last week, many people with children whose schools had closed had started the transition to telecommuting, according to the e-mail. And those over 65 were making the transition early this week.

But for those employees where telecommuting wasn’t an option – if there were technical issues, if they didn’t fall into a category designated by county protocols to start telecommuting yet, if they were too ill to work or for some other reason — they would have to use their accrued sick, vacation and compensatory time.

David Garcias, president of SEIU 221, which represents county workers, told Voice of San Diego in a statement that the union was currently in talks with the county to ensure that all non-essential employees had equitable telecommuting opportunities.

“We are currently talking to representatives of the county and seeking to address employee and community concerns that have been brought forward by our membership and coalition partners.” Garcias said. “While the county has allowed some employees to work remotely and others to take time off to care for their families, the county must provide this equitably to those whose jobs allow them to work entirely or partially from home.”

Garcias said the union was also working to ensure essential workers were given adequate protections while they work.

“During this time of crisis, our first priority is keeping members and the communities we serve as safe as possible,” Garcias said in the statement. “This means making sure that we have adequate protection to do our jobs, many of which are on the frontlines battling coronavirus and working to safeguard the public. To do this we need proper protective equipment, training and guidelines in place to keep us and the public we serve as safe as possible.”

A representative for the county did not respond to requests for comment from Voice of San Diego.