By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
On March 22, Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry issued an emergency order shutting down all non-essential retail and commercial businesses to help stem the rising tide of the deadly COVID-19 virus that’s wracking the country.
Now eight days later, and after Henry’s further order Thursday that all Broward residents stay home, hundreds of the county’s non-essential employees who work for Henry – analysts, clerks, custodians, elevator inspectors, groundskeepers and others – continue to commute to their government jobs in offices across Broward County.
The county has more than 6,200 employees. Many employees even report to locations that are no longer open to the public, like libraries and parks. Libraries were closed March 19 and parks on March 24. The emergency order announcing the parks shut down notes, “Parks employees will continue to report to work … Libraries staff will continue to report to work.”
“Whole county divisions have decreed you can’t work from home,” said one county employee who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation. “We are having a crisis and this woman [Henry] wants county employees that don’t need to be at work to write reports when the parks are closed and the libraries are closed.”
“I don’t know anybody who knows anybody who is working from home,” said another longtime county employee in a different division. “They misplanned for this.”
Turns out that Broward does have a “temporary telework policy.” Broward Human Resources boss David Kahn provided Florida Bulldog with an undated copy on Thursday, which included a section where an employee can acknowledge they have read and will adhere to the policy. Kahn said it was written and distributed the prior week. Turns out, too, that the new policy was little known among the county’s rank and file because its existence wasn’t disclosed with an online notice and no one was asked to apply.
Broward’s telework policy
County employees who spoke with Florida Bulldog, including a man with longstanding health issues, said they would be interested in applying to work from home. But that’s not how the policy works. You have to be recommended by your boss. Then you’ll be given a copy of the policy to sign.
“To be clear, employees did not apply to participate in the telework program. Each department recommended employees based on job responsibilities and the technological resources needed to perform their duties,” Kahn said Friday in an emailed response to questions. “The policy/acknowledgement was sent to those who are eligible to telework.”
Broward’s telework policy was prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak, yet public and human health concerns were secondary in its formulation. “All Temporary Telework arrangements are made on a case-by-case basis, focusing first on the business needs of the organization,” the policy says.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that older adults and people of any age with serious underlying health conditions – including people who are immunocompromised due to cancer treatment or other reasons, those with chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma and serious heart conditions – are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Broward’s telework policy makes no mention of consideration or prioritization being given to employees with those health conditions.
Unlike closure requirements imposed on county businesses deemed non-essential, eligibility for telework is not based on whether employees are considered essential vs. non-essential. Asked if that means department heads or administrators could work from home, Kahn did not respond.
Computer security concerns
County Administrator Henry told commissioners last week that security concerns about the county’s computer network were front-and-center regarding the issue of working from home. In a March 19 email obtained by Florida Bulldog, she also explained that there have been an “astonishing” number of attempts to penetrate the network and that it is “absolutely unwise to have hundreds of laptops all throughout the community with access to our networks without a thorough vetting.”
“We are triple checking who has what access to which databases and any vulnerability we could face – the last thing we need now is a ransom attack,” she wrote. “We will be authorizing certain employees, with vetted equipment to work from home.”
At a commission meeting on Tuesday, Henry said about 1,200 employees had met the county’s security needs “so we are allowing that work where it can happen.”
How many county employees now telecommute? “I don’t have a number for those actually telecommuting,” Kahn said Friday. “Some employees have declined, and many departments are doing switch schedules where a percentage of the workforce comes in on one day while the other teleworks, and then they switch.”
County employees who want to telework must agree to keep “an appropriate level of communication between them and their supervisor.” They also must agree to submit a “Daily Telework Productivity Log” to their supervisor and to have their performance evaluated “based on the successful completion of pre-determined tasks and duties.”
Hourly employees who normally clock in will have to “accurately report all hours worked” every day, “including time spent ‘off the clock.’” Hours worked beyond those scheduled require a supervisor’s advance approval.
Other action to limit exposure
Henry has taken other action to limit employees’ exposure to the public. That includes limiting hours and heightening security at offices to reduce “traffic to our facilities without compromising our ability to be nimble when we are called upon to provide the essential governmental services.”
Leaders of two unions that represent many county blue- and white-collar employees, Dan Reynolds of the Federation of Public Employees and Greg Blackman of Government Supervisors Association Local 100, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
To try and avoid exposure to the virus, employees can also take paid personal sick and annual leave days they are owed, or unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. “I have said to each and every one of my directors, ‘If there’s an employee that is uncomfortable in any way shape or form, let them go home. If they have leave,” Henry said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re being liberal with that.”
Meanwhile, an internal county email written last week and obtained by Florida Bulldog says that unresolved employee “Leave Without Pay Requests” are mounting.
Late Friday, Henry’s office also announced it would take step the unprecedented step of barring the public, including the media and the county’s general staff, from attending Tuesday’s regular county commission meeting and public hearing. “Interested parties can view the meeting in a variety of ways, including webcast, broadcast and live streaming on social media,” the announcement said.
Persons who want to speak “must utilize a new remote public participation option…In order to comment on an item remotely, you must have access to the internet (to register), a working email address (to receive your confirmation code) and a telephone (to dial into the meeting). For instructions on how to participate and links to the registration website, visit RegisterToSpeak.Broward.org.”