Back to work? With new virus strain, maybe not | Roegner

COVID-19 has made the workplace more hazardous because the virus, particularly the delta variant, gets transmitted by air and proximity to infected people.

What value do employers put on their employees? Most private sector employers would say their employees are a main reason for their success. These employers have invested significant training, salaries, benefits and promotions in their employees.

It appears that some governments have different views about what their employees need to know as many city facilities are opening back up following Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening of the state for business as of June 30.

Inslee started with restaurants, bars and other high-use areas. During the past 18 months, many businesses and governments have been closed to in-person transactions. Others have upgraded their ventilation systems so employees can continue to come to work safely. Some staff have worked from home or have rotated with other staff. Most have become very familiar with meetings on Zoom.

Several city governments have reopened to the public and others are starting to phase in their reopening. However, in some cities, employee concern about exposure to COVID-19 has caused each city to use its own plan for reopening. Some cities have continued allowing their employees to work from home, or work a reduced in-person schedule. Fully vaccinated people have been allowed to discontinue wearing masks in public places, and more people are now traveling than before.

But that may not last. Wearing masks has also become partisan because many Republicans have followed former President Donald Trump and are refusing to wear a mask.

The continued difficulty with getting enough people vaccinated, along with the emergence of the delta virus strain, has already caused reconsideration of when masks should be worn. City Hall decisions may also need to be reconsidered to ensure employee workplace safety.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs one of the largest health systems, has already announced that it would mandate vaccinations, putting pressure on President Joe Biden to extend that mandate to all federal agencies. It also appears that the private sector is starting to move in the direction of mandatory vaccinations. College campuses are talking about ensuring student, staff and faculty safety by requiring vaccinations. New York and California will require health providers “to be vaccinated or don’t come to work.” And school districts have likely already discussed opening schools this fall with vaccinations required.

Some local governments appear to be digging in their heels prematurely on what employees need in order to return to work.

The King County Heath Department has recently returned to its policy of urging masks for all indoor meetings.

The Federal Way mayor’s office reports it has been phasing in reopening since May 18 with a goal to fully reopen to the public by June 30. In-person meetings of the city council began in July. Their view is that not all staff positions are conducive to continuing to work remotely, and as a service delivery agency, they should be present to serve the public. Or was that a hasty decision before all the facts were known, such as how the vaccinations may not work on the delta variant?

Only three complaints so far, they report. But some insiders say many Federal Way staff are looking for work in other cities that offer more flexibility and a better HVAC system. For employees working remotely, there was no requirement to let their supervisors know if they got COVID-19, so the city doesn’t know the status of returning employees. They have only been keeping track since they reopened June 30, which may not provide enough data to be helpful to employees trying to decide whether to return to work, or look for different options, or determine whether a phased option might be preferable. They do know that 194 employees have been vaccinated.

In contrast, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus scheduled over 15 employee town halls via zoom, including July 1, to take feedback and answer questions about return to work schedules, dress code and public interaction. Backus agrees that city staff need a physical presence at City Hall to serve the public. She and her department heads have sought employee feedback and are using a more phased-in approach with return to work in-person two days a week in July, three days a week in August, and four days a week after Labor Day through the end of the year.

Kent officials say they are following the Centers for Disease Control and Labor and Industries guidelines. Kent ended telecommuting on July 6 with staff returning to the office that day. They reopened ground floor customer service July 19. They knew that other city staff might want to know the status of those they would be working near. Of Kent city staff, 46 staff members (or 5%) had contracted COVID, which is the same percentage as the county. They also are able to inform fellow workers that 430 employees have voluntarily disclosed they are vaccinated.

SeaTac has been fully open since July, although some employees are working three days a week.

According to Des Moines staff, they will be back in the office when the HVAC construction is complete, and in-office days at City Hall will begin in early September. In contrast, Federal Way said the facilities department was working on a plan to upgrade the HVAC, but funding allocations take time. They also communicated that air filters for individual work stations is not a cost-effective recommendation to implement.

Lack of money is not the answer employees are looking for when they know thousands have died from COVID. They want to feel assured that their mayor and council value their health and job contributions. Those answers send the wrong message to employees. They know the city has priorities and want to know they are one of those priorities. They can also read the budget and know police usually get what they want.

In Covington, supervisors have been encouraged to find ways to accommodate working remotely and allow for social distancing.

When will home and work life return to pre-pandemic ways? At this point, no one knows.

But despite both public and private efforts to make a smooth transition, human services managers are preparing for several challenges. Child care will become a more important issue, as will stress and mental health counseling, along with drug and alcohol abuse, which will be part of what human services professionals watch for. For those already fully vaccinated, booster shots may become part of labor negotiations as we learn more about the delta variant. The workforce that left will not be the same as the one returning.

There is significant informal communication among staff from all cities. They know what each city is doing, and how they are treating their employees in these unpredictable times. They also know the pressure on them will continue.

City leaders who make decisions without including staff input run the risk of losing their staff’s trust and confidence. When bigger decisions are needed, staff may go job hunting elsewhere.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact