The Oregon State Capitol canceled a Cherry Blossom Festival scheduled in March due to COVID-19. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)
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Across Oregon, schools and restaurants are shuttered, employers are encouraged to allow telecommuting and people are being told they should just stay home as the state tries to slow down a deadly surge of the novel coronavirus.
But getting state government, which employs about 40,483 people with nearly half of the jobs located in Salem, to follow Gov. Kate Brown’s lead hasn’t been as straightforward.
State agencies have taken steps to allow employees to work remotely or to stay home to prevent spreading the virus. But such arrangements encountered technological constraints and a public that is increasingly callling on state government for help with health care or economic insecurity.
In response to the outbreak, the state Department of Administrative Services signed agreements last week with the two large state employee unions.
The agreements, which last through June, expand leave options and specify that employee requests to telecommute “will be presumed to be acceptable.” But the work-at-home requests can be denied if there is a lack of laptops, cell phone or network availability.
David Kreisman, communications director for Oregon AFSCME Council 75, said that while the agreement has helped, issues remain.
“The biggest issue with the (agreement) and telecommuting is there is not enough technology and laptops to do this work,” he said.
He said that the union, which represents about 4,000 employees, has heard of state workers being denied telecommuting requests because of a lack of laptops. Kreisman pointed out that the state has a shortage of masks and other protective equipment to keep workers from contracting the virus. He said he heard a report of behavioral health workers using bandanas instead of medical masks when working with clients who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Kreisman said that to keep workers and the public safe, it’s time for the governor to mandate shelter-in-place, a drastic measure that would shutter nonessential businesses and government services. He said that demand for some government services is already diminishing.
“Nobody is going to get a building permit. Nobody needs to take a driving test,” he said.
Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for both the governor’s office and the Department of Administrative services, said in an email that there were no plans to layoff any state employees beause of the outbreak. So far, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Lottery and Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services have curtailed operations and services in response to the outbreak.
Melissa Unger, executive director for SEIU 503, said her union isn’t calling for a shelter-in-place order and is working with each agency to balance protections for state workers while also making sure that government agencies are carrying out services at a time when they’re especially needed.
She said that her union represents the largest share of government workers, about 23,000. Those include employees who have regular contact with other people at the Employment Department, the Department of Human Services, the Oregon State Hospital and the Oregon Youth Authority.
“It’s challenging because of all the needs,” she said. “And, to be honest, we are on the front line of those needs.”
Unger said that other state functions that may not seem obviously essential need to continue amid the outbreak. She said one example is the workforce needed for state tax services to send rebates to a cash-strapped public.
She said that a barrier to telecommuting is that the aging technology used by state government can’t be easily transferred to a laptop. She also said that the shortage of masks and protective equipment is an issue for her union.
Calls for comment Friday to the representatives of Human Services and Transportation departments weren’t returned.
Jennifer Kalez, communications director for the Department of Energy, said in an email that the department remains open and is following social distancing guidelines. She said that about a third of the department’s 72 employees are teleworking fulltime and others are doing so more sporadically.
Merah said that there wasn’t a figure for how many state employees working are telecommuting because it isn't centrally managed. But she said that about one-third of the department's 333 full-time employees are telecommuting.
She also wasn’t aware of issues with laptops because each agency manages its own IT hardware.
“However, we do know that many agencies are moving more and more in the direction of allowing telework for employees,” said Merah.
She said that the state is negotiating similar agreements with the rest of the state’s labor organizations, of which there are nine.