Yamhill News Register: County employees request extension of telework policy

Reprinted from the Yamhill News-Register

By Nicole Montesano

Two weeks after county employees and community members sent 85 letters to the board of commissioners asking it to extend the county’s telework policy beyond June 1, the board has not taken up the matter, or even acknowledged the requests.

However, AFSCME union representative Paige Barton told the News-Register that the union has been talking with County Administrator Ken Huffer about its concerns.

Huffer did not respond to an inquiry from the News-Register about whether the issue would be addressed by commissioners.

Employees told the board they don’t believe it’s safe to return to the office, and many feel they’re being forced to choose between being good parents and being good employees. They said telework is proving as efficient or more so than working in the office.

Leading the effort is the Yamhill County Employee Association, which is affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

After being refused permission to speak at the April 29 commissioners’ meeting by Zoom, Barton sent a letter asking the county to extend the telework policy, create a streamlined process to allow employees to request exceptions for disability situations, and to let Huffer take the lead in working with employees to “achieve a safe return to Pre-Covid service levels.”

Commissioners have a general policy of not discussing public comments when they are received, although they sometimes make exceptions, as they did last week, when three supporters of the Japanese School in Sheridan asked them to write a letter in support of the school. The request was added to the meeting agenda the same day.

Employees wrote that many of them are high-risk and do not feel safe returning to the office when the pandemic is still ongoing; many noted Yamhill County is still in the high-risk category.

Many used a form letter that said, “Your decision to end telework on June 1 is harmful to many Yamhill County employees who are single parents struggling to get their children through the pandemic, and those who have pre-existing high-risk conditions and simply can’t interact with the public, and more.

“We work hard for Yamhill County doing our best to make everything happen despite exceptional obstacles,” the letter continues. “Many of us are facing extraordinary hardship still.

“As we hear Commissioners diminish our work and tell us to get back to work, the hypocrisy is clear: if we followed Ms. Berschauer’s example for our County, we’d continue teleworking.”

Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer has said several times that she believes it is time to end the county’s policy of allowing employees to work remotely during the pandemic. Commissioners are holding their meetings via Zoom.

The letter also asks commissioners to “observe County Administrator Ken Huffer’s authority granted under County Ordinance 848 with respect to this issue and all others.” It says employees are concerned that the commissioners will jeopardize a hard-won accord between the union and county administration, and asks commissioners to treat staff with more respect.

“Please treat County Administrator Ken Huffer, County Counsel, and Carrie Martin better,” the letter states. “When we watch you treat them poorly, it also communicates a lack of appreciation for us as County staff.”

Barton told the News-Register that if all employees at high risk from COVID-19 are no longer allowed to work remotely and instead have to request accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, “this will overwhelm Yamhill County’s Human Resources department, with just four or five people working in it. We have real concerns about how a return to work is supposed to happen in Commissioner Berschauer’s reality.”

Barton told commissioners in her letter that YCEA had conducted a survey “to identify challenges our members were experiencing returning to the worksite. Thirty-eight percent of respondents told us child care or distance learning would prevent them from returning to a County worksite full time; 59% of respondents told us a high-risk medical status that they or an immediate family member has is contributing to their ability to a county work site full-time.”

Barton said, “Of our members who reported child care as a primary consideration, access to child care was ranked as the top reason for this barrier. This was followed by child care costs and health risks for individual children.”

She said, “One member wrote, ‘I personally left kids at home to manage online school. My daughter was hospitalized for 10 days in December due to a medical condition that I feel being left alone contributed to.’”

Many members, Barton wrote, “told us that by requiring a full return to the worksite, Yamhill County is asking them to choose between being great parents or serving Yamhill County at the worksite. Three of our members have reported to us that they have been told as much while they are navigating their return to work. We hope you join us in agreeing this is not a great position to be putting County workers in.”

Employees wrote that, although they respect co-workers’ right to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine or engage in risky behavior, they don’t feel it would be safe to be forced into physical proximity with them.

Barton quoted another member, who wrote, “The great majority of my work can be done remotely just as easily as it can be done in the office. I have fewer distractions and interruptions when working from home than I do when I am in the office. I also appreciate that I am home as soon as the work day ends and have that additional time to devote to my home and family without a long commute to and from the office.”

Employee Nancy Winn wrote, “I am more productive working at home. I have reduced my gas consumption by 50% and so my carbon footprint. ... Requiring a return to the way we worked before the pandemic is regressive. We have learned so much about alternate work styles.”

Winn wrote, in addition, “At a time when we have struggled to find adequate office space for all HHS staff it seems that telework could also enable staff who need onsite office space for work with clients.”

Kathleen McKinney of McMinnville wrote that “Telework has been proven to be more productive than the same employees working in the office. As a former state manager, I can attest to that. The vast majority of County employees are hardworking and do their best every day. I’m dismayed by the lack of support, especially by Commissioner Berschauer.”

Adrianna Gutierrez of Amity wrote,“We have proved during this time that telework is beneficial not only to the continuity of the county’s many services but also for the safety, mental health and betterment of the individual employees. ... With all that is changing in our world, please do not remove the option of telework. Let’s stay modern, up-to-date with the general workforce and allow families to maintain an income and employment while making the lives of their children and families safe.”

Shannon McClean of McMinnville wrote that she appreciates the commissioners’ service, but “It falls to you to think of the health and safety of those under your care, especially those essential workers who have done so much to keep our community functioning in these stressful times. We owe them that and more.

“Please grant this very reasonable request out of respect for them and their families.”