San Diego County Administration Building
The San Diego County Administration building is shown in this image from Nov. 8, 2015. (Brad Racino/inewsource)

San Diego County front-line employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic filed multiple state safety complaints against the county Friday, according to a news release from their union, SEIU Local 221.

The complaints, filed with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, allege that employees have limited access to protective equipment and work in overcrowded offices where social distancing can’t be maintained, the news release said.

For more than a month, the local union chapter has decried working conditions for county employees on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, including staff at county jails, hospitals and nursing homes.

Why this matters

Roughly 3 million people have contracted the novel coronavirus around the world, including 1 million in the U.S. and 3,000 in San Diego County.

Poor safety conditions and inadequate access to protective gear leads to an increased risk of transmission and endangers workers interacting with people suffering from COVID-19.

On April 6, the union published a survey of 70 county workers about their access to medical gear. More than half of the healthcare personnel who responded said they had inadequate or no access to surgical masks, N95 respirator masks, eye protection, hand sanitizer and cleansing wipes.

The following week, SEIU Local 221 launched a petition demanding the county implement new safety measures, offer hazard pay and full paid leave to staff, and improve telecommuting policies. More than 1,000 members have signed it.

The union presented the petition at the county’s Board of Supervisors meeting on April 21.

“Every day, we get calls from our members about their concerns, and we are responding,” local union President David Garcias told the board. He said the union chapter has raised its safety concerns with state legislators and the governor.

“Now it’s time for the county to respond,” he added.

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Four county employees also gave speeches to the board, describing their fears of catching the coronavirus, a shortage of protective gear when interacting with San Diego residents and a failure of managers to properly notify staff when their co-workers developed COVID-19 symptoms.

In response to the presentations, county Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer said workers exposed to the coronavirus have been properly notified and officials are doing their best to make medical equipment available.

“We have been working diligently to make sure all those supplies are on order, have been received, have been distributed,” she said.

Addressing the demands for hazard pay, Robbins-Meyer said many county employees “already receive a premium because we know how important your jobs are and you’re at a high level of risk.” She added the county has not laid off or furloughed any employees despite the financial crisis.

In Friday’s news release, Garcias said, “We are calling on the executives to do the right thing for our communities and the dedicated professionals who serve them. We will not stop advocating until every single front-line worker has the resources and support to be safe.”

A county spokesperson could not be reached Friday night to comment about the complaints.

Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....