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Orange County employees worry about spread of coronavirus in office building as more colleagues test positive

Social workers employed by Orange County are calling for enhanced safety measures at the Santa Ana building where they work, driven by fear of increased exposure to colleagues who have tested positive for coronavirus over the past few weeks.

The workers say their potential exposure to the virus also poses a risk to elderly and disabled clients who they sometimes must visit at home.

In recent weeks, coronavirus has spread rapidly in Orange County, which is now one of 24 counties in California in danger of being forced by the state to return to some kind of social and economic lockdown.

The latest concerns from social workers echo complaints that surfaced in early April after an employee with the County of Orange Social Services Agency came to work the same day they tested positive for coronavirus, creating a ripple of fear among people working at an office building on south Grand Avenue. That building houses the Santa Ana Regional Center.

Now, nerves are on edge among social workers and other employees at a different county building, on East Warner Avenue. Four people who work in that building tested positive for coronavirus from the beginning of June to the first week of July, according to internal county emails shared with The Register and confirmed by Social Services Agency administrators.



Employees in that second building, at 1505 E. Warner Ave., work for the Social Services Agency’s In-Home Supportive Services division and for the Orange County IHSS Public Authority, a separate entity that contracts with the county. The staffs of both agencies oversee assistance to elderly, blind, and disabled residents whose ability to care for themselves is limited. Caregivers paid by IHSS Public Authority directly help those clients with routine tasks, such as cooking meals, grocery shopping or doing laundry, to remain at home.

The building, like other county buildings, has been closed to the public since March 19. There is no set date to reopen it, county officials said, although social workers told the Register there was talk of a mid-July opening.

But caregivers who go into homes of IHSS clients do come to the site for drive-through pickup of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Social workers also occasionally visit the clients at home to verify or update information. Such encounters can strain the 6-foot limit of social distancing guidelines, because many clients are hard of hearing or don’t see well and social workers say they must come near to them to provide assistance.

“There’s a heightened concern because of the work they do,” said Charles Barfield, general manager for Orange County Employees Association, the union that represents about 18,000 county workers.

Representatives for the Social Services Agency said staff concerns were being addressed. They said COVID-19 safety measures undertaken at the Warner Avenue building comply with state and federal guidelines.

But some IHSS office workers who have contacted the Register say more needs to be done. They are calling for a quarantine of their workspace, along with deeper cleaning measures than what they say the county has provided — requests that are similar to what other county workers and the union representing them, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, sought in April.

“What we wanted was for management to close down our office and do a full, deep sanitation,” a social worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said in a phone interview last week. “But they said, ‘No.’”

Union leader Barfield said late Monday that the county plans to deem social workers with In-Home Supportive Services and Adult Protective Services to be emergency responders. That would make those workers “exempt from quarantining after exposure” to people with COVID-19.

On Thursday, July 2, an email sent to all Social Services Agency staff on behalf of  Director Debra Baetz and Chief Deputy Director An Tran, stated that the agency had expanded its regular janitorial services “to include enhanced cleaning and disinfecting in our buildings” that are conducted at night from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m., when the building is otherwise empty.

The email also said that janitors have been instructed to use EPA-approved products to clean and disinfect the workstation of any employee who tests positive for COVID-19.

“Sometimes the staff are not aware of it,” Deputy Director Tran said in a July 2 phone interview. “We’re doing that mainly off hours.”

But county social workers and a union representative said such deep cleanings may not actually be taking place, based on what they have heard from janitors.

“They (county administrators) are going to tell you they have, but there is anecdotal evidence that they haven’t,” said union leader Barfield.

Workers have asked that the county test all employees anytime someone in an office has a confirmed positive result for coronavirus. They also want daily temperature checks conducted on people who enter the Warner Avenue building, which has common areas such as lunch rooms, break rooms and restrooms.

The county is leaving it up to employees to decide for themselves to get tested, and provides them with information about where and how to do that. Temperature checks also are voluntary, for now, with thermometers made available twice a day at a room inside the building. But that might change.

“We are having ongoing discussions with the Health Care Agency and labor organizations to see what is the best practice going forward,” Tran said.

Normally, the two-story building houses about 240 employees. But in recent weeks, as many workers check in from home, the on-site workforce has been reduced to about half that number, with about 100 workers there on any given day. The 135,000-square-foot building, which includes a warehouse, is spread over two stories, though the second floor currently is undergoing construction.

Workers with In-Home Supportive Services are represented by the Orange County Employees Association, which includes about 18,000 public sector workers throughout numerous county agencies, the Superior Court system, local municipalities and special districts.

Early responses to a survey sent last week to 12,000 OCEA members found some concern about the county’s COVID-19 precautions. More than 1,200 surveys had been returned late last week, when a technical glitch disrupted the process. Nearly two out of three of the people who responded (64%) so far said they didn’t feel safe at work, Barfield said.

The deadline for responding to the survey was extended to Tuesday, July 7, he added.

Source: Orange County Register

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