San Diego

On The Front Line: County Employees Raise Alarm Over Safety and Pay During Pandemic

San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency plays a vital role in the fight against the coronavirus, but employees working for the agency told NBC 7 Investigates their needs and safety aren’t prioritized.

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On the front lines of the fight against coronavirus is San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) The public health department is responsible for daily briefings and tracking on COVID-19 infection rates, hospital availability, and services for those who fall ill. 

But some employees for HHSA tell NBC 7 Investigates they feel the county isn’t making their needs and safety a priority, and are calling on leaders to make things right. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Child Protective Services employee Lisa Garcia has been focused on the safety and needs of the 18 children she is assigned to taking care of for the county. The mother of two says some days she feels like a mother of 20.

“We’re social workers, we’re here to keep kids safe,” Garcia said through a face mask after spraying herself and her car down with Lysol before heading out to conduct her home visits for the day.

With stay-at-home orders in place, Garcia and other HHSA employees deemed essential are still running county services, including jobs that require they go out in public where the risk of contracting the coronavirus is high. 

Over the past three weeks, Garcia and eight other employees with HHSA spoke with NBC 7, detailing the concerns they’ve raised with County management - concerns they fear have fallen on deaf ears. 

In addition to requests for hazard pay, or reimbursement of costs from working at home, the employees said the county has not provided enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees working out in the field, or in some cases, they were provided a small amount of PPE late into the pandemic.

San Diego County CPS worker Lisa Garcia.

Some of those complaints are now being investigated by Cal/OSHA, a spokesperson for the state agency confirmed.

Employees working from home also say they’ve been forced to use their own personal laptops and other equipment since stay-at-home orders went into effect, and that they could be susceptible to data breaches. 

Frustrations boiled over Monday when for the second time during this pandemic, employees formed a caravan of vehicles and circled the county administration building’s parking lot, honking and demanding that workers’ safety be prioritized.

“It doesn’t seem like they care about us,” an Adult Protective Services employee told NBC 7.

HHSA Workers In The Field Fear Not Enough PPE

Working from home is an option for some county jobs but for workers with Child Welfare or Adult Protective Services, teleworking isn’t feasible. Workers for those vital services in San Diego County told NBC 7 they knew since day one of the COVID-19 pandemic that they would have to leave their homes in order to ensure San Diego’s most vulnerable are safe.

“My job is to investigate child abuse,” Garcia said. “You cannot see marks and bruises on a video conference.” 

Nico Portillo with Adult Protective Services says some of his clients are 80 to 90-years-old, and with a lack of knowledge on how to use certain technology, virtual visits are impossible. 

“I am afraid, you know, that I can contract the coronavirus,” Portillo said. “I’m going out into the field. It’s something that I have to do, I have to make sure the people I work with are living in their homes safely.”

Garcia and Portillo were the only two employees comfortable with speaking to NBC 7 on the record. Seven other HHSA employees, including two supervisors, feared retaliation for going public with their complaints, so they asked that they not be identified. NBC 7 independently confirmed their employment with the county.

All of the employees voiced concerns over the amount of personal protective equipment or PPE, they’ve been provided to date, which includes one N95 mask, a sleeve of cloth, and a single pair of gloves. The employees said they received that PPE the week of April 13, nearly a month into the pandemic. 

San Diego County employees wearing PPE provided by management. Some fear its not enough.

“We are definitely not safe. This is working in a whole other environment. It’s been told the virus lives on the mask, so they can give us five, 10 masks a day, and we’re still not safe,” Garcia said. “We’re still bringing it home to our families. It stays on our clothes, on our shoes. A mask isn’t going to keep us safe.”

One social worker said she’s been purchasing masks on her own, but the county will not reimburse her for it. 

Several complaints regarding PPE were filed with Cal/OSHA by the local union representing county employees, SEIU 221, for further investigation. 

SEIU 221 provided NBC 7 a summary of the complaints, which include allegations of little to no protective gear inside county buildings serving some of the area’s most vulnerable. The summary stated San Diego County’s Child Welfare Services department by far had the most complaints regarding lack of PPE and social distancing. 

Workers inside the Polinski Center, the county’s emergency children’s shelter claim that there was no soap in certain areas and that immediately following a staff member testing positive for COVID-19, no additional safety measures were taken to protect staff or children.

Non-law enforcement support employees working in the San Diego County jail say they weren’t getting any masks - the situation was so dire that Sheriff’s deputies reportedly “took pity” on them and gave them their own masks to wear. 

A spokesperson for Cal/OSHA confirmed they were investigating complaints filed on “several county offices” but would not provide additional details. 

A spokesperson for the county did not respond to requests for comment on the Cal/OSHA investigations, or employee concerns over PPE.

Working From Costs and Security

Some employees told NBC 7 they had to make a tough decision at the start of the pandemic: work from home and find the equipment needed to do so on their own, work in the office where they could be at risk of COVID-19, or use their own accrued hours to take time off. 

“[The] county puts on a good face but isn’t doing enough for its own employees,” an employee with Welfare Services told NBC 7 by phone. 

The pandemic had notably led to an increase in requests from the public for certain services, like the CalFresh food assistance program, which saw a 96% increase in local applicants during the pandemic. The increase in applicants has led to a flood of tasks for those working remotely.

“The workload is a lot,” another worker for Welfare Services told NBC 7. “You think of how many people are filing for unemployment, now factor in people filing for benefits. Yeah, my wrists are hurting.”

The employees who spoke with NBC 7 say as they manage the influx of those applying for benefits from home, they worry personal information could land in the hands of hackers. 

“If indeed the county is putting clientele first, we need to tell the public that we are working from home and that there could be security concerns, given the rights and responsibilities we have to protect the public,” an employee said. 

A county employee takes part in a vehicle caravan demonstration at the County Administration Building on Monday, May 18, 2020.

There’s also the factor of at home costs from working on the job, like paying for internet service or using a personal computer. Currently, employees say there is no plan to be reimbursed for those costs by the county. 

“Nobody could have predicted this but now we’re two months into [the pandemic] and there’s been no word on reimbursements, and they haven’t acknowledged the issues when brought up,” another HHSA employee said.

On Monday, an HHSA spokesperson confirmed that as of last week, the county was beginning to issue laptops to employees, but that it “varies by department and role.” The county did not respond to concerns raised over personal data breach risks from employees working at home.

Majority of Supervisors Voice No Support For Extra Pay

On May 5, HHSA employees waited eagerly as San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher proposed a plan that would have given employees additional hazard pay, and reimbursements for at home costs. 

Fletcher’s plan entailed the county creating three tiers of employees based on who’s at greatest risk of a COVID-19 infection. Tier 1 employees would be those who are working directly with COVID19 patients. Tier 2 would include employees working directly with the public, and tier 3 would be employees who have to work in the office. Employees in these tiers would receive a three to five percent raise, based on their COVID-19 risk.

“As a Marine...when we were sent into combat or put in harm’s way, we were appropriated combat pay,” Fletcher told the board. “I think it’s appropriate that we take into consideration of hazard pay for our county workers. These are our county workers who are on the frontlines.”

Fletcher’s plan would have also allocated up to $100 a month in reimbursements for county employees who are working from home.

To pay for it, Fletcher proposed using a portion of the $334 million dollars awarded to San Diego County by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Watch that portion of the May 5, 2020 Board of Supervisors meeting below.

But the plan received no support from fellow county supervisors. 

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar indicated that as of May 5, only 20 county employees had tested positive for COVID-19, or less than .01% of the county’s workforce of 18,000. San Diego County’s Chief Administration Officer Helen Robins-Meyer also added that the 20 employee infections were not traced to their work for the county.

And as for the CARES Act funding, Supervisor Jim Desmond warned the money could only go so far given the uncertain future trajectory of the virus, current economic shutdown, and 17 other local cities that are looking for financial assistance. 

“The health and safety of our employees is always number one,” Desmond told the board. “The $334 million is a lot of money, but we actually have over $500 million in costs (tied to the pandemic) so far.”

Desmond said county leaders should be focused on the staggering 25% of San Diegans who aren’t receiving a paycheck at all. 

SEIU 221, the local union that represents county employees advocating for additional pay and reimbursements, pushed back on the supervisors’ comments.

“A majority of County Supervisors turned their backs on front-line workers,” said SEIU 221 President David Garcias. “Supervisor Gaspar had the gall to question whether front-line workers are in danger of exposure to COVID-19, and Supervisor Desmond called front-line staff ‘angels’ before voting against them."

HHSA employees said they felt abandoned by county leaders.

“This isn’t a raise,” Garcia said. “This is not something we signed up to do, to work in a pandemic, to put ourselves at the exposure of getting a virus.”

“It makes me feel like I don’t have the support from the Board of Supervisors to do my job effectively,” said Adult Protective Services Employee Portillo.

One HHSA employee told NBC 7 he believes a state law, Gov Code 3107, entitles all employees designated as “disaster service employees” to reimbursements and extra pay. In an email shared with NBC 7, sent on March 21, Chief Administration Officer Helen Robins-Meyer wrote a reminder that during the pandemic, “all county employees are considered disaster service employees.”

But it’s not clear if the law would help. Questions to the county about the law and whether it would apply went unanswered.

In the meantime, workers like Garcia, Portillo, and the seven other HHSA employees who reached out say they will continue to do their best work serving the county.

“It’s very discouraging because we put ourselves on the line often and it’s not seen [by county leaders],” Garcia said. “I had to pick the safety of my work family over my family, and that’s the situation we’re in now.”

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