County officials decide against outlawing worker travel

Friday, April 17, 2020

After a lengthy conversation on COVID-19 employee policies this week, Buena Vista County Supervisors ultimately left existing criteria in place, to be handled by its department heads.

Public Health Director Pam Bogue told supervisors that the number of cases is continuing to increase across the state, and Emergency Management Coordinator Amy Barrett said that supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) continue to roll in from the state, generally distributed to the facilities that need them within 12 hours.

While the county immediately locked down the courthouse March 17 when a governor’s order was handed down, there have been many impacts on employees. Offices that could spare employees have had them stay home, work from home, or rotate days and shifts to reduce risk of contact. Job descriptions have been changed for some workers who are now doing tasks in offices rather than working with the public.

While some of the employee furloughs were immediate, the board of supervisors did not act to continue pay until a week later. This week, supervisors acted to make pay retroactive for employees who lost work hours in that period prior to the policy change.

The county wrestled with what to do with such issues as self-quarantine, sick leave and vacation time.

Employees who are required to stay home may qualify for 80 hours of extra pay on top of county leave policy. If an employee were to take their vacation weeks and then qualify for stay-at-home pay, they could be away from the job for four or five weeks.

While the governor has recommended that non-essential employees stay home, she did not declare a shelter-in-place order - and there is a clear difference between a recommendation and an order, County Attorney Paul Allen told supervisors.

Without an order in place, the county does not have power to restrict its employees from traveling out of the area. And in a few cases already, employees have taken advantage of time not at work to vacation or travel to visit relatives in places with more COVID-19 cases than experienced locally.

The board discussed what to do in cases where employees are leaving the county.

The concerns are clear if an employee traveled to New York where the caseload is high, Allen said, but what about workers who go to Omaha or Dakota Dunes briefly for a doctor’s appointment or to attend to a relative?

The board discussed the possibility of making employees who travel out of state stay home for a mandatory two-week quarantine, noting that allowing them in the courthouse might not go over well with the other employees who could be placed at increased risk.

If employees were ordered to stay home, would the county continue to pay them, and cover their health insurance costs? it was questioned. Some may have already used vacation or sick time.

Currently, state and federal policy does not mandate for a quarantine for out of state travelers, but if they do return to continue duties in the workplace, they are recommended to wear a mask and monitor their temperature for at least two weeks.

County officials noted that it could cost taxpayers a lot of money to pay workers to stay home for two weeks when they chose to travel out of state when they shouldn’t have. And some offices could struggle to be without an employee for a long period. But department heads are also concerned that people who come back after being exposed could potentially spread illness though an entire department.

Supervisor Paul Merten worried that the county might not be able to enforce a rule on its own that employees can’t leave the county, and that some might take joy trips to COVID-19 hotspots and then return to a quarantine that would essentially be a two-week vacation at the taxpayers’ expense, he said, without having to count it as vacation time or sick leave.

“We would be getting way out into a world I’m not comfortable in, judging what is and what is not essential,” he said. “There isn’t a shelter in place order, so if someone decides they need to visit a family member, how would I know if that is essential?”

There are two core questions the county needs to address, Supervisors chairperson Rhonda Ringgenberg said: “Do you want those people to come back to work, and if not, how will we pay them? How comfortable will everyone else in the building be [if employees who have traveled come to work]?.”

“I do have a concern with people coming back to work who have been exposed,” Public Health Director Bogue said. “A mask is not going to prevent them from spreading it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Others agreed that it didn’t seem fair for those who have continued working to be exposed to risk by people who have spent their quarantine time off unwisely traveling.

For now, county policy requires that people who are ordered to stay home be paid, whether or not they are actively working from home.

Sheriff Kory Elston said that in some cases, department like his may need the person to come back to work to continue services, but said that he would prefer to check with Public Health before making that decision.

“We’re paying people to stay home now and not work. We can’t cover every situation - I don’t know if we should even try,” Supervisor Merten said. He felt that department heads should be able to deal with their employees’ situations, and if anyone is found to be “gaming the system,” it could be dealt with on an individual case basis.

Supervisors decided to leave the situation at that for now, and to send out a letter reminding employees of the policies that are in place, and that they are to stay home when possible until quarantine is lifted.

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