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Pima County shifts to allow continued 'work from home' after Supes, staff pressure

Huckelberry walks back plans under fire; Workers express worries about office conditions

Pima County employees are concerned by a move to end coronavirus telecommuting, but County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry retreated a bit from his firm stance to require a return to in-office work under pressure from the Board of Supervisors and staffers.

Pima government workers — about 1,100 of whom have been working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak — had been told that they will be required to return to their offices starting May 18. But Huckelberry, pressed by emails and public statements by county staffers and during a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, allowed for some further wiggle room that will permit some to continue working remotely.

Huckelberry had announced last week that "upon the governor's lifting of the Stay-at-Home Order," "all county employees are expected to return to work as instructed."

That earned him some pointed criticism, both on the record and via anonymous emails to county officials, with some employees reluctant to reveal their names because they are concerned about possible retaliation, they said.

Huckelberry responded to one scathing pseudonymous missive by calling the writer a "coward," and one top manager last month was told he expected workers who complained about office conditions to be disciplined.

The county administrator told TucsonSentinel.com last week that the county is "not a telecommuting organization."

But during Wednesday's meeting, Huckelberry walked back his position a bit, telling the supervisors that his announcement "could be interpreted differently, and I'll grant that."

Wednesday evening, he sent out a memo to top county officials that "clarifies the direction of the Board of Supervisors," the laid out a set of "options for returning employees to work that includes telecommuting.

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That shift in future policies essentially maintains the status quo as far as remote work for county employees.

Saying "we were not particularly artful," the county administrator said during the Wednesday morning meeting that some employees will be allowed to continue working remotely if they can verify that they have childcare or family medical issues, and can perform their duties from home.

"You need to basically check the box that says you can do both," he said. In many cases, a doctor's note will be required, he said.

"The goal here is to have at-risk employees continue to telecommute," Huckelberry told the supervisors, after Sup. Betty Villegas asked why the county was pushing a return to work after Gov. Doug Ducey said this week that "those who are telecommuting should continue to telcommute."

Villegas said that she's concerned "that we're bringing our employees back too soon," questioning whether some offices have the "capability of bringing in all their employees and still following the safe distancing and mask protocols."

"If not, why would we want to bring them in all at once?," she asked. "We should phase this in."

In response, Huckelberry emphasized during Wednesday's meeting that the county was "beginning to return to work."

About 1,400 of the county's 7,000 employees have telecommuted at some point during the pandemic, with 1,110 doing so during the last pay period in April. Thousands of other employees have been placed on leave during the "stay at home" order.

The supervisors will again discuss remote work by county staff at a meeting on Tuesday, at the request of Sup. Sharon Bronson.

The evening memo, sent to top county department heads and "appointing officials" in county agencies headed by elected officers, said that employees who are eligible for telecommuting and have a child affected by a daycare or school closure can continue to work from home.

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Other employees who can continue to telecommute are: those with compromising medical conditions as identified by the CDC; those with family members with such conditions; and employees older than 65, the memo said.

Staff who seek permission to work remotely must provide a "medical attestation" within 15 days if they or a family member have a medical condition justifying it, Huckelberry wrote.

Huckelberry told TucsonSentinel.com on Wednesday night that only a fraction of county employees have been teleworking. "Everyone else is either on leave or working," he said.

Staff 'freaking out' about workplace conditions

TucsonSentinel.com spoke to several county employees — including three members of Pima Defense Services, the county's public defenders and legal advocates — and they all worried about how the end of telecommuting will make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 in county buildings. One parent said he has struggled with how to manage his kids while daycares and schools remain closed because of the coronavirus.

On May 4, Huckleberry wrote that once the governor's order was lifted, "all county employees are expected to return to work as instructed." While some employees may continue working from home, including those with compromising medical conditions, all others will be expected to return to work, he said. On Monday, Ducey announced that his order would expire at the end of the week, saying "we're clearly on the other side of this pandemic" even as the number of reported positive diagnoses of COVID-19 and deaths due to the virus have increased in the state.

In his memo, Huckleberry wrote that employees who wanted to stay home must use "compensatory time, vacation leave, or sick leave, in that order" if they wanted to remain out of the office because of their own concerns about workplace safety due to their own or a family member's compromising medical condition.

Employees with children at home because of school or daycare closures, must either return to work, or begin using emergency family and medical leave.

"Intermittent... leave is permitted; however, telecommuting is no longer an option," Huckleberry wrote.

Three members of PDS wanted to speak out about the plan, but they all worried about blowback for speaking to the media, citing an April 10 email exchange, in which Dean Brault, the director of PDS, told employees that Huckleberry was "expecting disciplinary action" for comments made in an internal email thread, which was obtained by TucsonSentinel.com.

In an April 10 email, Brault wrote that he received a call from Huckleberry's assistant after two employees criticized the county plan to check county employees' temperatures when they enter county buildings.

"Really. We want the county to test all employees for the virus. All science supports this as the only way ahead. That's what I expect the county to deliver to me. Not temperature checks," one employee had written.

Another PDS employee wrote that she completely agreed.

The county administrator's office was looped in on the thread, leading to Brault to write that he was "starting to take heat for this."

"We're doing our job telecommuting with clients, and we don't think think this is hurting our work product," said a member of PDS. "It's a horrible for morale, and they're saying to us you are replaceable. At a time when people need support from their employer, this is the exact opposite."

"The county is not doing anything to protect us at work," said another county employee. "The whole thing is nonsense," he said. "We're freaking out."

While PDS employees have continued to serve clients while working from home, the May 18 deadline meant one employee was "scrambling to figure out" how to manage his kids if he goes back to work, because with schools closed, camps delayed, and his in-laws sheltering from the virus, he's not sure where they can go.

Recreation centers have largely remained closed, and after-school programs have remained closed since mid-March, including city wide programs like Kidco, SchoolzOut Camps, and the InBetweeners Club.

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Meanwhile, many summer programs aren't likely to begin until June.

The county staffer, who asked that the Sentinel not disclose his name, criticized the county's plan to institute temperature checks, arguing that it wasn't enough, and questioned how people could socially distance in the main county building Downtown, where just four elevators for 11 floors means everyone has to venture into a tight space.

"They are throwing as many of us in harm's way as they can," he said.

Another apparent county employee emailed concerns on Sunday, leading Huckelberry to call the person a "coward."

A "Joe Smith" wrote under a pseudonym to Bronson's office that the administrator was "unilaterally" putting employees and the community "at risk" by ending telework, according to an email thread provided to the Sentinel.

"His May 4th memo not only shows his lack of compassion for people struggling right now, but also shows his complete lack of care for his employees," said the email, sent from an email account seemingly set up for the occasion.

Expressing concerns about potential "liability" for the county, the "concerned Pima County employee" said "I understand that Mr. Huckleberry is old fashioned and does not believe in telecommuting, but this absolutely not the time for outdated ideas and his ego."

"I'm writing this anonymously since Mr. Huckleberry has recently been very vindictive and sought retribution against people who have voiced their valid concerns," the email said.

When he was included in the email thread after a pro forma response, Huckelberry replied Monday night "Tell coward thank you" in a message sent to "Joe Smith."

The sender of the email did not respond to a request for comment from TucsonSentinel.com. We were unable to confirm the sender's identity.

Huckelberry told TucsonSentinel.com that his description of the email sender was prompted by the use of a pseudonym, and not the concerns expressed.

"Only that," he said.

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Wednesday night, Huckelberry told TucsonSentinel.com that he's been "going into work every day" despite being old enough to be a member of the "vulnerable class" that could be working from home, and that "Joe Smith" had gotten his salary incorrect in his email.

"What an idiot he is," Huckelberry said, calling some of the assertions in the email "grossly inaccurate."

Not a 'telecommuting organization'

"The issue is we are not a telecommuting organization," said Huckleberry during an interview with TucsonSentinel.com Friday.

Huckleberry argued that the county wasn't a company like Microsoft that could use and manage people working remotely, but that the county needed to be available to the public.

"We're a public agency and we've never closed," Huckleberry said, noting that about 70 percent of workers were considered essential.

This includes employees who could not realistically telecommute, including employees at the water treatment facilities, as well as the county jail, he said. Huckleberry said that most employees would come back to work, but that the county would consider letting some people stay home on a case-by-case basis.

Officials at the county have pointed to "inequities" in teleworking, noting that it primarily applies to white collar office staff, but not "guys who are out in the hot sun shoveling asphalt into potholes" or law enforcement employees, who have had to take leave if they have children but no daycare available or a family member who has needed care.

Officials have also said there are difficulties verifying that remote employees are working throughout their shifts, with some not quickly responding to emails or phone calls.

Huckelberry told the supervisors Wednesday that when a staffer is working remotely, "all we can see is if computer is turned on." But, county employees working at home are using a VPN — a virtual private network — that among other features allows IT staff to track every web page they visit on their county computers.

"We will grant exceptions, if that case is well-justifiable," Huckelberry told the Sentinel last week, adding that while he will consider managers' opinions in each case, ultimately, the decisions would rise to his level.

"If it is well-justified, it will be probably be approved," Huckleberry said. 

The county has had thousands of "nonessential" employees on leave during the pandemic, with about 1,400 who've worked at home at least part of that time.

The county has issued several "strategies" to return people to work, based in part on CDC guidelines.

This includes asking departments to use a "phased in" approach, allowing for seven days between each phase, require daily temperature checks, staggering work hours for those in cubicles for "greater social distancing," the use of virtual meetings, limits on contact in break-rooms and the routine disinfection of private and common areas. County employees will be asked to help clean their areas.

Masks will remain optional, but "strongly suggested for counter or direct public interaction positions."

On April 29, County Chairman Ramon Valadez and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero issued a joint statement, writing that they were "united in our concern on relaxing restrictions and opening up our economy at this time."

"We encourage Gov. Ducey to give counties and local jurisdictions the flexibility to act at the regional level if he does not want to extend his 'Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected' executive order statewide."

"The CDC's guidelines on 'Opening Up America Again' clearly state that governors have the discretion to allow local jurisdictions to act at the regional level. The Pima County Health Department has issued guidelines based off CDC recommendations on when it is safe to begin a phased re-opening, including a decline of positive cases over 14 consecutive days, widespread testing, and sufficient PPE for first responders and healthcare workers. We urge great caution in any relaxation," they said.

The county's own website makes for confusing signs that the county should re-open. In a dozen criteria, only three are marked green for "criteria met." One criteria requires a decreasing number of new cases over 14 days. That criteria has been met, because while cases spike every Monday because of reporting, the number of cases per day has gradually drawn down from April 20 when there were 48 cases in Pima County, to 42 on May 4. On Wednesday, 38 new cases were reported in the county, with 8 new deaths reported. 144 people have died in the county from COVID-18, among nearly 600 deaths in Arizona.

However, the county's criteria for sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare and emergency responders was marked in red and then gray, and there's little sign that the county's requirements for timely contract tracing or testing of symptomatic contacts has been met. Testing and tracing have remained a major issue throughout the crisis, and there are few signs that the U.S. might get to the level of testing needed.

In a report from Harvard University's Edward J. Safra Center for Ethics, researchers estimated that the U.S. would need to perform 5 million tests per day by early June to deliver a safe social reopening. "This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy," researchers wrote. "We acknowledge that even this number may not be high enough to protect public health."

'It's dangerous'

The perception among many county workers is that it's not yet time to crowd back into offices.

"It's dangerous, there's no way to stay away from people," said another county employee. "There's some sense that we're not taking this seriously, or doing our jobs because we're at home, but working as a public defender is a calling," she said.

That staffer also criticized the county's plan to have some employees take leave if they needed to stay home. "That's a problem for our clients and the office, because now they have to pick up the slack, while the client has to wait for another public defender. It's not going to work," she said. "

"We're doing more work on our computers at home," she said, adding that until June 1, it is not necessary to go to court because so many hearings are done telephonically, while dozens of other hearings have been delayed because of coronavirus. "There's nothing I would have done at the office that I would not get done because I'm at home."

Last week, Huckleberry reiterated the county's precautions, including a system of taking temperatures at the doors, and that each employee would be given a color-coded "sticker" with the date that they had to wear to ensure their temperature was checked before they entered the buildings. County officials expect to make about 3,000 checks per day.

"It's the model to make sure the workplace is safe," he told TucsonSentinel.com.

In a set of frequently asked questions, released Monday, the county said that all employees would have their temperatures checked at screening sites, and anyone who tested above 100.4 or higher, would either be retested or sent home.

If someone had a high temperature, they are required to stay home for up to 14 days, and can use leave or sick time, including pandemic outbreak leave, federal emergency paid sick time, vacation leave, or leave without pay. Cleanings have been doubled, and some public areas will be getting a disinfectant "fogging," Huckleberry said.

"We're going to be flexible and public health standards are going to guide what we do," Huckleberry told TucsonSentinel.com, adding that he was "confident" that the county could open, and protect its employees. "We still need to be open to public services," he said.

PDS deemed 'essential' but on thin ice

Several departments within the county were declared essential during the period of Ducey's emergency order, including PDS.

In an email to staff on March 31, Brault wrote that the office was "deemed essential" and that exempted the department from the governor's order. "Based on the amount of work currently being done by all PDS employees, I have determined that that all PDS employees are currently essential," he wrote. "Everyone should show up for work tomorrow. Everyone telecommuting should continue to telecommute."

Brault wrote that he had asked employees to report their workload for PDS, and based on that data, "there was only a marginal decrease" in the amount of work completed by county staff. "I indicated that while things may be changing soon, we at PDS were still operating at a normal volume of work but sought guidance from County Administration on how to address any future decrease," he wrote. "I have not yet received a response."

"PDS will continue to monitor these statistics to assess the amount of work being done by PDS employees and will evaluate whether that justifies reclassifying employees from essential to non-essential," he wrote last month.

"We will be monitoring these workload factors on a weekly basis. If and when we get to the point where workloads are decreasing and we need to make adjustments, it will be with a full assessment of the impact on our employees, their preferences, and what will best serve our clients."

Even as county employees worked through the pandemic using telecommuting, some employees remained skittish about the administration's willingness to allow the policy to continue.

In an email to staff, Public Defender Joel Feinman warned PDS employees not to use social media from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on workdays. "Every day presents an extraordinary challenge for our office. Any minute county administration could inform us the current telecommuting policy we have fought so hard for is canceled. Any minute, they could tell us furloughs are beginning," Feinman wrote.

"Every time we post something, like something, or comment on something between those hours, we are saying that fleeting thought is more important than our jobs or our co-workers' jobs, and more important than our co-workers being able to pay their rent and feed their families. Obviously this is not the case," he wrote. "Your status update is not worth the job of the person who sits next to you in the office. No more likes. No more updates or comments. Period."

Although federal law protects the right of employees to discuss working conditions, sources within Pima County told the Sentinel that three employees were given letters of reprimand over voicing their concerns about COVID-19 safety.

Meanwhile, Huckleberry warned the presiding judge of Superior Court, Kyle Bryson, in early April that a "large number of employees" at the county, including Public Defense Services, were telecommuting.

"Telecommuting does not relieve the employee of their obligation to serve the court and their clients," Huckleberry wrote, and he asked the court to inform him if any representative of the County Attorney's Office or PDS fail to appear.

"If the court is inconvenienced or delayed in any manner due to failure of appropriate County Attorney or PDS staff to appear, I intend to pursue appropriate action through the respective appointing authority," Huckleberry said.

However, weeks later Brault was able to praise the office's response, writing that "over the course of the last month I have witnessed how devoted everyone is to providing quality representation to our clients. I am also impressed with how well everyone is adapting to the new constantly changing landscape. I know that it isn't easy."

Brault noted that when the state of emergency was declared he determined that every employee in PDS was "essential."

"I continue to stand behind that statement today," he said. "Representing our clients is an essential service and you are vital to making that happen."

Most county telecommuting to end starting next week

Under Huckelberry's plan, most telecommuting will end starting next Monday, though confusion remains about who can still work remotely, and who must return to their offices or begin using some version of leave.

On Monday, Huckleberry wrote a "return to work clarification" memo to address "ongoing questions" about the county's return to work protocols. Employees should "only return to work when you are directed to do so," and some people may face changes in their schedules as departments work to follow social distancing guideline and separate workspaces.

However, Sup. Ramon Valadez told county employees that telecommuting will still be allowed if: "1. Employee has a compromising condition recognized by the CDC, 2. An employee has a child (under 18) that is affected by school or day care closure, 3. Employee is 65 years of age or older, 4. The employee has a family household member with a compromising medical condition as recognized by the CDC."

"I do understand the concern surrounding the return to work memo that the county administrator released on May 4," he wrote. "Clarification will be released soon regarding this matter."

On Wednesday, the county supervisors brought up the issue with Huckleberry during the emergency meeting.

While the meeting was scheduled for a discussion about the county's guidelines for re-opening certain businesses and activities, the county's approach to telecommuting took priority. Valadez, clad in face mask, said that there was "substantial amount of public comment" and he added emailed comments to the record.

He then shifted and asked Huckleberry to review a series of question that he submitted a day earlier about the telecommuting policy.

Huckleberry, also clad in a mask and seated at the back of the room where staff members and press normally sit, said that the policy was an "evolving process" that was made necessary by the county's response to COVID-19 as the first cases were announced in early March. The criteria, he said, was designed to protect the most at-risk employees, but Ducey's March 30 announcement "added an entirely different concept to telecommuting," allowing nearly anyone who could work remotely to do so.

Now, with the governor's order rescinded, it was "appropriate to have a return to work plan," Huckleberry said. He praised a plan by the Pima County Attorney's Office, calling the agency's "phased approach" a "poster child" for a plan to return to work.

Huckleberry told the supervisors that about 1,110 employees were currently telecommuting, while about 4,000 were working at offices or in the field, and the remainder of the county's approximately 7,000 employees were on some type of leave.

About 1,400 county employees have worked remotely at some point during the pandemic, county records show. During the last pay period in April, 1,925 workers were on county pandemic leave, and 1,307 were on FFCRA leave. 276 county staffers were on furlough, records showed.

Some employees have been working from home only part of the week, dealing with childcare and other family issues. Some staffers who have been on leave because their positions were declared "nonessential" have been called back to work for periods "staffing the wellness check stations at all county buildings, for instance, staffing the OneStop Help Line, or helping deliver PPE to medical facilities or food to the food bank," county spokesman Mark Evans told TucsonSentinel.com last week.

Sup. Sharon Bronson, who called in by phone to Wednesday's meeting, asked Huckleberry whether people with kids at home can continue to telecommute.

The policy was "not particularly artful," he said. Employees who want to work from home to deal with family issues need to be asked, "can you work and do that (as well)?," he said.

"You need to check the box that says you can do both," Huckleberry said. "You can take care of children who don't have daycare. Can you take care of an adult is compromised? Check both. And under that circumstance I'll allow it," he said.

Sup. Betty Villegas, who also attended the meeting by phone, asked how long the county would allow people to work remotely, noting that Arizona's governor recommended that those who can telecommute should continue to do so.

Huckleberry said that the governor's order was "as vague as all the rest of his orders," and asked the board to provide some direction for the county administration. Supervisors and appointing managers could allow people to telecommute, he said. And, if people needed to stay home because of childcare issues, they could. "They attest they can do childcare and work, that's all we need," he said.

Bronson said "I didn't like the answer" Huckelberry gave about employees needing to verify medical needs with a doctor, and asked Valadez if she could make a motion regarding a work from home policy to give the county administrator guidance. Bronson indicated she'd like masks to be required for all county employees, and not just those working directly with the public.

Valadez said it would be "cleaner" procedurally to take up the matter at the meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

The memo sent Wednesday evening by Huckelberry said that supervisors "must continue to verify that there is a sufficient quantity of work for an employee to perform remotely, whether the work can be performed at the same quality as if in the workplace, and that work performance can be verified."

Huckelberry said that masks will be provided to county staff on request.

Plans developed by each department should include "how the department will observe social distancing," with safety measures that include:

  • Use of virtual meetings
  • Routinely disinfecting work surfaces and routinely documenting these activities
  • Limits on breakroom capacity
  • Use of cloth masks
  • Encouraging good hygiene
  • Posting of safety measures

County agencies should look at phasing in returning employees, staggering work schedules and telecommuting, Huckelberry wrote.

Other options include reducing work hours, emergency family leave, and using vacation time, he said.

Maricopa County plans 'slow, safe return'

Maricopa officials said earlier this week that they're not rushing to end remote work there.

"We are going to continue doing what we've been doing for at least the rest of this month. Teleworkers should continue to telework," Maricopa County Manager Joy Rich said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

Employees "who must come into the office, based on an essential need, should practice strict social distancing. Supervisors will be responsible for ensuring there aren't too many staff members in one location. Masks are available to employees in all departments, but based on CDC guidance, masks are optional unless your job requires you to wear one," Rich wrote.

"With more businesses starting to reopen and more traffic on the highways, it can be tempting to say, "let's all just get back to normal." That's not what our public health experts are advising," wrote the county manager. "For your well-being and the well-being of our community, the county leadership team will work toward a slow, safe return of our workforce."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry during a meeting in 2017.

Testing still lacking

Nationwide about 1.4 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and around 231,00 people have recovered from the disease, while nearly 77,000 have died, according to the COVID Tracking Project. COVID-19 has infected at least 12,176 people in Arizona and killed nearly 600.

However, a lack of nationwide testing hampered the government's ability early in the year to widely understand just how many people have been infected by the novel coronavirus as many people report being sick with either minor symptoms, while others are entirely asymptomatic. Overall, about 8.3 million tests have been completed in the U.S.

About 165,000 tests have been performed in Arizona. The state has a population of 7.2 million people.

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