The Marion County Health and Human Services headquarters in Salem (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Marion County is now allowing employees who get Covid to be paid while they’re in isolation without using up accrued sick or vacation leave.

The policy, which the Board of Commissioners adopted Sept. 8, requires employees to provide proof of needing to isolate through a local public health department letter, but doesn’t allow a doctor’s note. The policy is retroactive to July 1 and lasts until the end of the year.

Marion County Employees Association, the union representing roughly 1,000 county employees, is in a labor dispute with the county over working conditions during the pandemic. Employees have asked for the ability to work from home and filed an unfair labor practice complaint on Sept. 3 alleging the county failed to negotiate over a policy requiring workers to return to the office.

Trish Straw, president of the union representing county employees, said the county has been telling employees to go to their doctors to determine if they need to isolate, not the public health department. Marion County’s Health and Human Services Department hasn’t been able to contact trace everyone who’s been exposed to Covid because of the volume of cases.

She said the leave policy requiring a note from the health department is an about face from earlier guidance.

“Anyone that had a note from their doctor should be restored their time, especially when (the county) changed the rules,” she said.

Straw said she knows of many employees who were never contacted by the health department to let them know they were exposed to Covid.

Straw said the union also plans to address the Covid leave policy during a meeting with leadership next week.

When asked about the county’s inability to keep up with contract tracing, Marion County spokesman Chad Ball said the public health department still receives every positive test and reaches out to that person for their last contacts.

“While we may not contact every known contact, we do have a record of it. That allows us to confirm that there has been a contact between an employee and a positive test when we are contacted and asked for a letter,” he said in an email.

Marion County public health workers are only contacting about a third of people about Covid exposure within 24 hours, according to the most recent Oregon Health Authority data.

The county is also operating under surge guidance for investigating Covid cases, meaning health workers generally make one attempt to reach someone who tests positive for Covid by phone, then mail a letter if that call is unsuccessful.

During the Sept. 8 meeting, Commissioner Colm Willis said the county doesn’t want people who get Covid to feel pressured to come to work because they don’t have paid time off left.

“We’re going to make sure you have two weeks of leave regardless of what your current leave balance is,” Willis said.

He added that the county wouldn’t fire anyone based on their vaccination status.

Commissioner Kevin Cameron said, “This is the type of thing we can do to say, ‘We do really care about everybody.”

A three-page FAQ sheet sent to employees said they will be paid retroactively if they receive a letter from the public health department after their quarantine.

One of the frequently asked questions said, “I understand my supervisor can send me home because I have Covid-like symptoms. Does this qualify for paid leave?”

The answer was, “Not necessarily. You may utilize the addition two weeks of paid time if you receive a note from your local public health authority specifying your need to quarantine. You may use other leave consistent with personnel rules and collective bargaining agreements.”

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

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