State workers share COVID-19 concerns

Difficulty getting to telework, close contact among worries

Employees who work in a state office building that had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, say they’re worried about their health.

Two people who work inside the building at 410 Willoughby Ave. contacted the Empire to say they feel the risk is greater than what state officials described in a March 25 article about a COVID-19 patient who had contact with the building’s first floor.

“These officials are projecting an air of calm around a situation they ultimately misrepresent,” one Department of Health and Social Services employee told the Empire in an email Thursday. “This is very much a worrisome situation for the 20-plus workers who have all been immediately exposed.”

The person asked to remain anonymous, citing fears of retaliation.

Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association, the union representing state workers, said he’s heard similar sentiments from workers in the building, including concerns about contact between workers on different floors. Metcalfe said employees are fearful of repercussions for speaking to the press, even though their contract protects them from retaliation.

[Dunleavy says ‘all options are on the table’ for COVID-19 response]

Employees who spoke with the Empire said someone working in the building was confirmed to have COVID-19 on Sunday, March 22, the same day the City and Borough of Juneau announced the city’s first case of the illness.

That worker had been sent home Wednesday, March 18, employees said, and the rest of the DHSS employees at the building were sent home the following Monday. In the days before, the patient had been working to complete the paperwork necessary to work from home, a process which involved collecting signatures, a DHSS employee said in an email.

One DHSS employee disagreed with Public Information Officer for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Jeremy Zidek statement to the Empire that the Willoughby building was “minimally staffed” and that many state employees had been allowed to work from home.

“Only a single manager in the affected office where the case was confirmed had permission to telework,” the DHSS employee said. “All other employees were reporting to work every day, despite everyone’s workload being done almost entirely through a computer.”

Zidek said the information he provided to the Empire pertained to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which is on the second floor of the Willoughby building. DHSS is on the first floor.

”The state’s doing its best to maintain the critical function while we’re dealing with COVID-19, things are changing very fast,” Zidek said Friday. “If I put out some information that’s not accurate then I apologize.”

One of the issues with telework, according to the employee, was there were not enough state laptops to accommodate all the employees in the office. Additionally, under state protocols, employees wanting to work from home must complete a telework plan that must be approved by supervisors.

But following the confirmation of the COVID-19 case at the office, employees were told to take their desktop computers and begin working from home.

A second DHSS employee who spoke with the Empire said they had raised concern about social distancing in the office and had discussed working from home with their immediate supervisor, but were told that permission to work from home had not come from upper management.

“(They) had not been instructed that we had permission to work from home yet,” the second employee said. “As far as my immediate supervisor knew the permission wasn’t there for us to work from. (They) felt their hands were tied.”

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly passed a motion Thursday to send a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy urging him to implement additional policies and procedures to minimize the risk of transmission of coronavirus in state facilities and to maximize the number of people working from home.

[City urges governor to promote teleworking, safety at state offices]

Dunleavy previously said state employees and their supervisors must work together to create work-from-home plans.

“We are encouraging our workers to work with their supervisors to see if that is a possibility,” Dunleavy said at a press conference Thursday. “We’re going to do everything we can we can to work with our workers to make sure that our state is functional to the best extent possible but that their health is absolutely being taken into consideration.”

The DHSS employees who spoke with the Empire were both able to do their work from their state computers. One employee said all that was needed was an internet connection and virtual private network that allowed them to access state databases remotely.

On Wednesday, two days after DHSS employees were sent home, multiple people shared with the Empire an email from DEC Commissioner Jason Brune to DEC employees informing them of the contact with COVID-19 at the building.

As of Friday afternoon, DEC employees were still working in the Willoughby building, according to Laura Achee, DEC public information officer.

When asked for comment, DHSS spokesperson Clinton Bennett referred the Empire to the state’s website regarding the telecommuting policy. The website says people who have shown symptoms of COVID-19 are eligible to work from home, but concerns about COVID-19 alone are not grounds for telecommuting the website says.

“Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer has designated public places, such as workplaces, as safe locations at this time and will update the DHSS website if the status changes,” the website says. “Therefore, an employee’s feeling of being unsafe at the workplace because of a general fear of COVID-19 does not, standing alone, justify a situational telecommute request like having COVID-19 symptoms or a COVID-19 symptomatic family member would.”

The site does say that supervisors are given “broad discretion in establishing telecommuting arrangements,” so long as they are approved by management.

On Tuesday, the ASEA filed a lawsuit against the State of Alaska to compel greater protections from COVID-19 for state workers. In an email, Metcalfe said that since filing that suit, more workers had been able to telecommute.

“That’s good, but employees are still getting turned down (for telework),” Metcalfe wrote. “The Governor likes to say that it’s up to the supervisor to grant telework, but the policy says that the division director has to approve. The lack of a consistent policy, as evidence by DHSS in Juneau, is creating risk.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

Information on the coronavirus is available from websites for the City and Borough of Juneau, the State of Alaska at coronavirus.alaska.gov and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with flu-like symptoms are encouraged to contact their health care provider.

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