Courthouse Square

Observer-Reporter

Observer-Reporter

Washington County’s Courthouse Square office building

Washington County government is seeking voluntary furloughs among its workforce due to the new coronavirus pandemic and the disaster emergency declared March 23.

The mass email sent Monday cites “this uncertain economic climate” and efforts being made to reduce operating costs as the reasons behind a temporary reduction in the size of the workforce.

Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan said in a statement that with the length of the pandemic as yet unknown, “We worked collaboratively with the Service Employees International Union on voluntary furloughs so that when we do emerge from this crisis, the county will be able to effectively help our small businesses and residents get back to work.

“That’s why it’s more important than ever, while so many are struggling in our county, that the county continue to be responsible with taxpayer dollars.”

In the joint statement with the commissioners, Service Employees International Union Local 668, Steve Catanese, president, said, “While this action is unfortunate, we understand that it’s a good faith effort to protect worker safety and jobs, while ensuring the county can continue to serve the public throughout the duration of this crisis.

“We’ll continue to work with the commission to ensure that this action causes the least possible harm to the county’s employees.”

SEIU Local 668 represents workers in Washington County courts, human services and other county services.

The county had made contingency plans for employees to work from home, and workers were being paid full salary for the first two weeks after the disaster declaration. After that, employees were required to use earned leave time if they were not working from home or in their respective offices.

In an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the county instituted “social distancing” to reduce the number of people working in offices and for the sake of public health.

Those who are approved for voluntary layoffs would be eligible for unemployment benefits, and the communique briefly describes the procedure and recent federal act that expanded compensation.

The county promised to continue to pay both the county’s and the employee’s share of health, dental and life insurance during a temporary layoff, but to remain eligible, those who are recalled to work will be required to repay the employee portion of premiums after returning to work.

“They could come back depending on what things look like,” Irey Vaughan said, noting that reassignment of duties and reorganization are also options.

In the event of a recall done in stages, union members would be recalled in order of seniority under the union contract.

“We’ll have to see what this looks like moving forward,” Irey Vaughan said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re looking at everything. We are constantly reviewing what we receive from our directors to ensure our employees who are working remotely are putting in a full day’s work.”

The targeted number of voluntary furloughs noted in the news release is 50.

Voluntary layoffs include both county and court-appointed employees, and the email that went out states, “Any employee working for an elected official will follow the guidance of” that official.

One such official, District Attorney Gene Vittone, said he didn’t see the request as impacting his office because “crime unfortunately doesn’t stop during this period and the police need our support.”

Shelli Arnold, county human resources director, said Vittone’s staff had been deemed essential and therefore not subject to voluntary layoffs.

Others ineligible for the voluntary layoff are employees of the county jail; the Public Safety Department and 911 call center; juvenile and adult probation officers; and those who work for Human Services departments of Children and Youth Services, Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Aging Services.

Employees have until 4 p.m. today to notify the county’s human resources department if they are interested in a voluntary layoff. The final decision, however, will be up to members of the board of commissioners and the Human Resources Department. Court Administrator Patrick Grimm will review requests from court-appointed employees.

Employees are to be told of decisions no later than Thursday for voluntary layoffs to be effective Monday. County offices, including courts, are closed on Good Friday.

Commission Vice Chairman Larry Maggi said, “These are tough times and sacrifices are going to have to be made, but once we make it through, I believe Washington County will make a full recovery.”

Commissioner Nick Sherman, in echoing Catanese’s comments, said, “Our top priority is to ensure the safety of our employees as well as all county residents. I’ve been working with department heads and the county’s COVID-19 team to ensure that we’re complying with all state and national protocols while still providing necessary county services, and with the coordination of SEIU Local 668, we believe we are making progress.”

Meanwhile, in Greene County, Commission Chairman Mike Belding said, “It’s certainly trying times for all of us. ... As long as we can fulfill a job role for employees, we’re not going to lay off any employees.

When the pandemic hit, Greene County offered employees – those who felt they could not risk dealing with the public or those who had health conditions – sick leave, vacation to which they were entitled or a voluntary layoff.

“No one requested to be laid off, nor do we intend to lay off,” Belding said. “Most of our staff are working remotely, or they are mobile.”

Some employees’ tasks – such as those that involve performing criminal background checks – can’t be done from someone’s home, but Greene has cross-trained employees so they can work in other departments doing filing, paperwork or indexing.

“We’ve been very cautious to make sure the taxpayer is getting his money’s worth while still supporting the county worker,” Belding said. “There’s nobody at home sitting around with nothing to do.”

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