Jackson County employees concerned for safety amid COVID-19 crisis

JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. — Jackson County commissioners said they’re hoping to reopen the county soon, but some county employees say they are concerned for their safety. While they say they feel safer now, they still don’t feel enough is being done to protect them as they move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This issue isn’t specifically just about the workers of Jackson County it’s about our community members,” Jackson County Health Employee, Angela Carruthers said.

As a Jackson County Health and Human Services employee, Carruthers has worked for Jackson County for over 20 years. She says as coronavirus concerns grew, the county didn’t take the necessary steps to protect its employees initially.

“One of the first communications we received was that there would be a limit on hand sanitizer, Clorox bleach wipes,” Carruthers said. “I think that sent a lot of fear through my department specifically.”

The county employees union agrees. Since then, representatives say they’ve heard numerous complaints including six to eight OSHA complaints about working conditions at the county offices.

“These are the people who are on the frontlines in many ways in public health and making sure the community is safe,” Executive Director of SEIU Local 503, Melissa Unger said. “We don’t think the county did anything to proactively implement procedures on behalf of the workers.”

Carruthers said a community justice employee even quit a few weeks ago after getting notice they may have been exposed to the virus outside of work. When they couldn’t get adequate distancing from coworkers, Carruthers said they quit their job. She says that’s just one instance that is concerning.

“At the airport, where there have been commuters who have tested positive, things like wearing masks are optional,” she said.

The county’s Human Resources director says it’s been a long process to get to where they are now, but they have taken steps to try to ensure protections for staff.

“We’re delivering services online wherever we can but there are some areas in a number of areas in the county that can not do that. We need to remain open to where people can come in and access their services,” Jackson County Human Resources Director, Karen Ramorino said.

Ramorino said with 17 different offices and hundreds of employees, that can look different for each person. The county has now created a frequently asked questions or faq’s page online to answer common concerns from its employees. Examples include, how employees can protect themselves and whether they can take sick time if they come in contact with a potential COVID-19 case.

“It tells employees what to do and supervisors what the options are, there are very specific criteria on what qualifies for different types of leave,” Ramorino said.

Carruthers and the union say it’s not just for their benefit. By protecting its staff, the county will better protect all its citizens that interact with them on the job.

“They are the ones going to work every day often risking the health of themselves and their families,” Unger said. “The only way they can keep the community safe is if they feel safe in their jobs.”

Jackson County and the union reached an agreement on a new contract earlier this month, after more than a year of negotiations.

UPDATE 5/1/2020 – Jackson County says five OSHA complaints were filed. It says all of them were closed, without inspections taking place.

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