Yesterday, Governor Doug Ducey announced the statewide stay-at-home order will be lifted this Friday, May 15, leaving counties across the state with just a few days to draw up plans to safely bring their employees back to work.
While many are saying it’s too early to open up society again due to increasing COVID-19 cases across the country, counties in Arizona are known as “weak arms” of the state government and must comply with their mandates.
In a recent memo, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry ordered all telecommuting county staff to return to work once the stay-at-home order is lifted. The county government is one of Tucson’s largest employers with a workforce exceeding 7,000 people.
About 4,000 of those employees are still working during the pandemic, with a little more than 1,000 telecommuting to prevent the spread of the virus. Many others are deemed essential workers and cannot perform their duties remotely.
In his May 4 memo, Huckelberry took a “no exceptions” tone when talking about employees returning to work. He said telecommuting would only be allowed if an employee has a “compromising medical condition” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is verified through written documentation of a Medical Provider’s Attestation.
The same requirement applies to employees who live with someone that has such a condition, but they will not be allowed to telecommute and instead will have to use their paid time off to remain away from work and protect their loved ones from exposure.
If any staff declines to come back to the workplace, Huckelberry said they will receive no pay and their absence will be deemed “unauthorized.”
Huckelberry's push to get employees back into county buildings contradicts advice given by the county’s own health department.
In a public health update from May 7, Interim Health Director Dr. Bob England said the county has been doing a good job of slowing the spread. However, if the opening of society next week results in increased transmissions, we won’t see the full effect of that until the end of May. At that point, it will take even more time for government officials to respond to the increase in cases, reimpose social distancing measures and see the results of that.
A true flattening of the curve would most likely be delayed until mid-July.
“Whatever happens because of relaxing mitigations right now, we can’t know the outcome of it for a considerable period of time,” England said.
During an emergency Board of Supervisors meeting this morning, Huckelberry’s stance on telecommuting was more lenient. He said the administration was “not particularly artful” in how they addressed the issue, because they did not feel confident that employees could both take care of children or family members and also be productive workers.
But it seems Huckelberry’s perspective has changed, as he indicated he will allow telecommuting for workers who say they can both care for a child or vulnerable family member and do their jobs.
“If in fact we simply have the employee attest that they can do childcare and work, that’s all we need,” he said.
Huckelberry was firm on requiring a Medical Provider’s Attestation for telecommuting, but said employees can work from home while they try to obtain that signature from their doctor. The amount of time employees have to get that signature will be determined by the board.
“We need some verification, some attestation,” Huckelberry said. “We’re dealing with public funds and we basically need to verify things that are said to us.”
Supervisor Betty Villegas said it is too soon to bring employees back to the county offices, and asked Huckelberry if each department has been deemed capable of implementing appropriate social distancing measures.
Huckelberry responded that each county department has been asked to draw up a back-to-work plan that will ensure the safety of their employees. He clarified that he wants departments to begin the process of bringing employees back to work beginning Monday, May 18, and not necessarily bring everyone back all at once.
As of this morning, Huckelberry reported receiving very few plans back from departments. But he said the County Attorney’s Office plan is a “poster child” for returning to work that includes a phased integration of staff and protects those who are deemed more vulnerable to the disease.
The Pima County Public Library system announced this morning that all but two of their locations will reopen to the public for limited services beginning May 18. They will be taking guests' temperatures before they enter the building, and employees will wear face masks and maintain six feet of physical distance. The libraries will allow a limited number of people inside the buildings.
At the board meeting, Huckelberry described similar suggested guidelines including staggering employee schedules, observing strict social distancing in the office, mandating daily temperature checks, disinfecting common areas, using virtual meetings, encouraging good hygiene and using cloth face masks.
Supervisor Sharon Bronson said every county employee should have to wear a face mask at work, and suggested that the county team up with Pima Community College to produce more masks.
Huckelberry responded that while employees are not required to wear masks (except for those who interact with the public), any employee who wants a mask will be provided with one. He noted that 2 million masks are set to be delivered to Pima County this week.
Huckelberry hopes to receive back-to-work plans from all county departments by the end of the week but did acknowledge that department heads weren’t given much time, considering Ducey’s announcement to lift the stay-at-home order just came down yesterday.
“We’re a public agency, and as a public agency we’ve got to provide public services,” Huckelberry said.