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Tim Steller's opinion: Pima County workers should keep telecommuting
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Tim Steller's opinion: Pima County workers should keep telecommuting

The unstated message from the Pima County administrator’s memos could not be much clearer: OK, slackers, it’s time to get back to work.

Chuck Huckelberry sent memos to the Pima County Board of Supervisors May 4 and Monday laying out how he plans to put county government employees back in more normal working conditions after the governor’s stay-at-home order expires Saturday. In general, he wants those who have been telecommuting to head back to their offices.

UPDATES: Tucson area coronavirus developments, June 1: Here's what we know

“Upon the lifting of the Stay-at-Home Order, all telecommuters are required to return to work and cease telecommuting,” Huckelberry wrote in the first memo.

Although I say Huckelberry’s message was unstated, it was actually right there in the title of both memos: “Return to Work Guidelines” and “Clarification: County’s Return to Work Protocols.”

You could interpret “Return to Work” as meaning “return to the workplace,” but I think the more accurate representation of Huckelberry’s attitude on telecommuting is that he doesn’t think Pima County employees working from home have really been working. He wants them to get back to work the way he is used to people working — in an office, where a supervisor can lay eyes on them.

That’s fine — if you ignore what his own Pima County Health Department has been saying. Dr. Bob England, the county’s interim health director, warned in his May 7 update that as businesses re-open and the stay-at-home order is lifted, a new acceleration in the spread of COVID-19 may happen. And if that happens, we won’t know for a couple more weeks, and then it will take even more time for governments to decide how to deal with it.

You also have to set aside what the county is telling restaurants: Reduce your capacity to 50% and keep at least 6 feet between tables. Huckelberry’s protocols do not dictate any new distancing in the county’s cubicles.

This is not, of course, the way Huckelberry explained his policies to me when I spoke with him Tuesday. He said the four main categories of workers who are vulnerable to COVID-19 or need help because of shutdowns will still have the opportunity to telecommute, specifically medically vulnerable employees.

But that is not how his memos read — they specify, for example, that people who have medically vulnerable family members must take leave rather than continue telecommuting.

Supervisors chair Ramon Valadez told me he plans to question Huckelberry during Wednesday’s board meeting about that discrepancy and other issues.

Huckelberry’s skepticism toward teleworking has been evident since the coronavirus crisis began. He has warned that it should only be viewed as temporary, he has reserved the right to approve all telecommuting requests himself, and he has said that failure to answer the phone will lead to an employee’s telework privilege being revoked. On Tuesday, Huckelberry told me in general telecommuting is not the way the county should run.

“We’re a public service agency, and we provide public services as a governmental body,” he said. “We’re not a telecommuting organization. We’re not a Google, we’re not a Microsoft.”

About 1,400 of the county’s 7,000 employees have been teleworking during the weeks of the governor’s stay-at-home order, Huckelberry said. Many of those employees whose work is deemed essential can’t work from home, of course.

That means there is a sort of class difference in how county workers are treated: Those with professional degrees who work in air-conditioned offices have had the chance to work from the comfort of home. Those who drive around in work trucks in the heat have still been driving around in work trucks in the heat.

So it’s true that white-collar workers have an advantage in being able to work from home, but that’s no reason to force them into confined quarters where they may be sharing air with asymptomatic-but-infected neighbors for eight straight hours, endangering not just themselves but the public.

Many of those who can telework see no reason to return to the office now.

“We can do everything our job requires of us remotely,” said Anne Elsberry, a trial team leader in the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office who is also the president of the Pima County Bar Association. “Our folks want to work. They want to take care of their clients. But they don’t want to sacrifice their families to do that.”

In a letter to Supervisor Sharon Bronson, Katherine Daubert Trushell, another attorney, noted that her son will soon return to a child-care center, and her husband, a third-year medical student, will soon return to training in hospitals. There’s no reason she should go back to the public defender’s office and potentially become a vector bringing disease to the office from her husband’s hospital or son’s center.

She added: “It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing, that everyone is out of the office or in the office. You can limit the number of people in the office at any one time.”

The union representing county workers, AFSCME Local 99, has been largely excluded from these discussions, said organizer Maritza Broce. She registered numerous concerns to the re-opening plan in a letter to Bronson. Among them: masks.

Huckelberry said in his memo that he supports employees wearing masks, but the county will not require them. Nor is the county providing them. That is, of course, counter to the guidance of the county’s own health department, which has been running a publicity campaign encouraging people to wear masks.

“They’re asking the public to wear masks, and they’re not even providing masks to their employees,” Broce said.

Bronson said it appears to her Huckelberry’s policy is “too much too soon.”

“The best methodology to keep those who are in the workplace safe is to continue the isolation and to continue the telecommuting,” she said.

Gov. Doug Ducey, whose order Huckelberry says he is following, appears to agree. He said Tuesday in lifting the stay-at-home order, “If people are teleworking today, in Phase 1 of the White House guidance, they would encourage you to continue to telework whenever possible.”

If Huckelberry has evidence people aren’t actually working while doing their jobs from home, that’s one thing. But absent that evidence, there’s no good reason to send them back into close proximity and help spread the virus now.

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter:

@senyorreporter

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