(Caleb Wolf/Special to Salem Reporter)

When Trish Straw got Covid she couldn’t get out of bed for three days.

She’s vaccinated, but said she still got sick. She could hardly perform as the primary caregiver for her father or, as a single mom, her children.

Straw said she was denied the opportunity to work from home by her employer, Marion County, even though it was possible to perform her role as a qualified mental health professional in the Health and Human Services Department.

The president of the Marion County Employees Association, the union that represents about 1,000 county employees, said her story is common among county workers.

Now, the Marion County Employees Association is filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the Employment Relations Board against Marion County for refusing to negotiate over the work conditions.

UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICE

The union wants more flexibility for employees to do their work safely from home.

Straw said the move comes after the union tried for 18 months to get county leaders to put policies and procedures in place for workplace safety, telecommuting and hazard pay during the Covid pandemic.

“We have spent the last (year and a half) to work with the county trying to communicate our concerns around Covid. We have seen them continuously go in the complete opposite direction, leaving employees feeling undervalued, disregarded and unsafe at work,” she said.

She said employees have been directed back to work after they’ve been exposed to Covid to wait for their test results. Employees were told to come back to work after being exposed if they didn’t have symptoms, Straw said.

County officials say they are just following state and federal guidelines.

In response to a list of questions from Salem Reporter about the union’s complaints, Chad Ball, Marion County spokesman, said Oregon Health Authority and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that vaccinated people who come in contact with someone with Covid can continue with their daily lives without quarantining. If an unvaccinated employee takes a Covid test, he said they’re advised not to return to work until they test negative.

Straw the matter came to a head on Aug. 11 when commissioners said they haven’t heard concerns from Salem Health leadership about the hospital being overrun with Covid patients or the severity of the cases.

Straw said that left employees feeling gaslighted because the commissioners were being informed of rising Covid cases in the community by the county health department.

She said commissioners Kevin Cameron, Colm Willis and Danielle Bethell continued to tell employees they needed to come back into the office. Straw said that included people who are undergoing chemotherapy or who can’t get vaccinated for other reasons, putting their health at risk.

Ball said on June 30, county employees were given six weeks’ notice that they would have to return to work on July 19 unless they qualified for a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He said the county has put measures in place to protect employees.

“We have increased daily cleaning of all county buildings, increased air flow in our buildings, provided masks and hand sanitizer to each department and all employees, installed Plexiglass in public spaces, offered work from home alternatives while businesses were shut down throughout the state, moved many meetings to virtual, and put social distancing and capacity limits in place in our conference rooms and small spaces,” he said in an email.

Ball said the county couldn't comment on why all employees were asked to return to work, citing an open grievance.

Straw listed nearly a dozen departments in the county whose employees were infected with Covid.

She said the union demanded to bargain the Covid work circumstances before the county released the mandate that all employees return to work with no exception in June. She said that was after she had many people calling and emailing saying they didn’t know what to expect when they got back into the office.

“People are scared. There’s no protocol in place for people to come back after telecommuting,” she said.

She said there were three meetings from July to August but she said county officials wouldn't agree to a fourth.

Straw said Human Resources Director Michelle Shelton, analysts Angelique Voltin and Salvador Illernas, Health Department Administrator Ryan Matthews, Legal Counsel Jane Vetto and Curtis Galccum were appointed by the commissioners to represent the county in discussions with the union.

“This is not a light subject. We do not bring things forward unless there’s no other option. We have exhausted every other option. Employees all over the county feel this way. This is not something the union or the board started, it’s completely employee-driven,” she said.

Ball said the union requested a “listening session” in June and the county has met with union leadership several times. He said the location where county employees work is not open to mandatory negotiation.

Straw recalled commissioners thanking employees for helping during the pandemic on June 21 with a cold sack lunch and a Marion County keychain.

“It was a slap in the face. ‘You don’t matter, here’s your soggy sandwich and lame Marion County keychain,’” she said.

Straw said no employee she talked to felt the gesture was sincere and appreciative.

Ball said “commissioners wanted to show their appreciation for the work and dedication that all our employees have shown during this past year.”

“We have been challenged with a pandemic, unprecedented wildfires, and an ice storm. Commissioners personally went to each department to thank employees for working diligently on behalf of Marion County residents,” he said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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