More than a dozen cars filled with San Diego County employees honked their horns as they drove past the county’s operations center Monday afternoon, waving signs that read “Protect ALL Workers” and “Hazard PAY Now.”
As they circled the large parking lot, the protesters spotted Supervisor Nathan Fletcher waving back at them in support. Fletcher, co-chairman of the county’s coronavirus task force, is presenting a proposal to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to provide hazard pay for the county’s 7,500 essential employees who continue to work during the pandemic.
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.
Fletcher’s proposal is the first public action taken by the county in response to its employees’ ongoing concerns about dangerous working conditions, limited access to protective equipment and crowded offices where social distancing isn’t enforced.
“We believe that these employees are not being protected and the county has not made (them) a priority,” said David Garcias, president of SEIU Local 221, the union representing more than 13,000 public employees in San Diego and Imperial Counties.
Union leaders have presented their concerns during Board of Supervisors meetings, sent a petition to elected officials with demands to improve working conditions and published survey responses from their members who fear catching and spreading COVID-19. The union’s thousands of members include social workers, program coordinators and healthcare personnel working at county hospitals, child care centers, jails, nursing homes and other facilities.
On Friday, the union announced it had filed multiple complaints with California’s health and safety department known as Cal/OSHA, alleging the county’s workplaces are dangerously overcrowded and lack the protective equipment necessary to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
SEIU Local 221 spokesman Adam Ward declined to provide copies of the full complaints to inewsource because he said the union doesn’t want to identify the employees who filed them — many of whom fear retaliation for speaking out — but was able to provide a detailed summary of the concerns described in state complaints.
The most concerns from any county facility or department came from Child Welfare Services, the summary said. Workers there have reported that the masks they are given are supposed to be worn every day and aren’t cleaned. The employees also said they are being asked to resume face-to-face visits with families they’re supervising and the cubicles in their office are too close together to maintain six feet of social distance.
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According to the summary, workers at the Polinsky Children’s Center, the Psychiatric Hospital of San Diego County, the Edgemoor in-patient nursing facility, the Sheriff’s Department and county jails have also filed complaints.
At the children’s center, which provides emergency shelter for children who must be separated from their families, staff described fears of contracting the coronavirus after receiving notice that a co-worker tested positive — and after some parents of the children they serve also tested positive — the union’s summary said. Workers reported there is no soap and few masks available for the employees, including those who come in close contact with babies and toddlers.
Support staff in jails have reported only receiving one disinfecting wipe per shift, the summary said, and nurses working at the Sheriff’s Department and with homeless patients also fear they don’t have enough protective equipment.
At a county news conference Monday, Fletcher declined to comment on the state complaints. He also wouldn’t elaborate on concerns from county staff working at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley, where people with suspected cases of COVID-19 are sent if they have nowhere else to isolate.
inewsource reported Friday that staff at the Crowne Plaza fear they might contract COVID-19 because of restrictions on protective gear and their close contact with sick hotel guests. Staff had also brought up concerns about a lack of proper mental health care for the guests more than a month before a homeless person staying at the hotel died by suicide.
“We continue to look into that incident, along with all of our protocols and procedures, and don’t have any additional comment at this time,” Fletcher said. “But we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety, as best as possible, for everyone in any of our locations.”
Rob Sills, director of the county’s Medical Operations Center, said county leaders are in “constant communication” with their employees, “and we’re looking at what the appropriate level of PPE (personal protective equipment) is needed to ensure that they have that.”
“In regard to the public health nurses at the hotel, we are working very closely with them to keep them stocked with the needed respirators masks, face shields, gloves, gowns and whatever they need,” Sills said. “That is ongoing and we look at that weekly and daily if the need arises.”
Fletcher’s hazard pay proposal, backed by SEIU Local 221, would split the workers into three tiers and raise their salaries based on how dangerous their working conditions are. The top tier would cover staff directly caring for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients and would include a 5% salary raise. The middle tier, composed of other workers who interact with the public, would receive a 3% raise, and the remaining employees would receive a 2% raise.
During a Monday morning news briefing, Fletcher said funding for the raises would come from the $334 million San Diego County received from the federal coronavirus relief bill.
“I was a Marine, and when we went into harm’s way we received combat pay,” Fletcher said. “It was a recognition of the increased danger that we were going into and what we were facing. And with the availability of federal funds, it seems like an appropriate use of federal CARES Act funding to compensate these employees.”
If his pay proposal passes, the county’s administrative office will bargain with union representatives to decide which employees fall into which tier, then estimate the plans’ costs and return to the board for final approval. The hazard pay would last until the end of the year or until the county’s state of emergency is lifted.
“If hazard pay goes forward and gets passed at tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors meeting, it will mean a lot to our workers,” said Crystal Irving, chairwoman of the union’s political organizing committee. “It’ll mean that we’re able to provide extra care for our own households, our own families. It will also show that they value our work that we do. It’ll also show that they actually value our lives that are being put at risk in order to do our jobs efficiently and effectively.”
KPBS video journalist Mike Damron contributed to this story.
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