Focus areas included shelters, jails, adult care homes, and teleworking
Auditor Jennifer McGuirk presented the first in a series of reports on the County’s response to COVID-19 Thursday, Feb. 18, shedding light on County operations during the first year of the pandemic.
The Auditor’s Office surveyed more than 3,300 employees, held 70 interviews with County leaders and management, conducted site visits, and researched County, state and federal guidance. Focus areas included the County’s response in congregate settings and implementation of countywide guidance. The time period covered spanned from June 1, 2020 to Dec. 18, 2020.
“Specifically we looked at conditions in shelters, jails, juvenile detention, and adult care homes,” McGuirk said. “People in these settings also tend to represent vulnerable communities in our county, including seniors, people who have disabilities, people who are experiencing houselessness, and people in adult or juvenile custody.”
The report found that the County acted quickly in response to the significant challenges presented by the pandemic in accordance to public health guidance. The audit also found the County had to also ensure buildings are safe and ready for employees while reducing the risks associated with the high number of teleworkers.
“This report provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our achievements and incorporate insights that will help us improve our ongoing efforts to address what may be the greatest challenge to the county’s operations in its history,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said.
Most employees follow face covering policy
Auditors reported almost 80 percent of surveyed staff agreed the County has taken appropriate action to reduce staff on site and installed sufficient signage promoting public health guidance.
The survey found generally good compliance with the County’s face covering policy, with 64 percent of respondents saying they always wear face coverings and 33 percent saying they sometimes wear them. Almost 80 percent agreed the County has taken appropriate action to reduce staff on site and installed sufficient signage promoting public health guidance.
Adherence to the face covering policy was lower among Sheriff’s Office employees, with 42 percent of those surveyed saying they always wear face coverings. At Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention, that number was 50 percent.
“Since Sheriff’s Office employees work in jail facilities where people live together in close quarters, we want to see the mask wearing to be higher,” said Nicole Dewees, a principal auditor. “We found that there needed to be more mask wearing at detention facilities by people in custody and employees, particularly in light of recent outbreaks.”
Sheriff Mike Reese and Erika Preuitt, who directs the Department of Community Justice, attended Thursday’s meeting. In response to follow up questions from Commissioners Lori Stegmann and Jessica Vega Pederson, they affirmed that all staff, along with adults and youth in custody, are expected to wear face coverings. Failure to follow guidelines, they said, is subject to investigation and discipline.
“I think early on we did have challenges with getting compliance with our face covering policy, which I take very seriously,” Sheriff Reese said. “I’m certain that we have improved dramatically in our adherence to the guidelines and will continue to enforce my expectations that everyone wear a mask as appropriate and as per policy.”
“It’s an expectation that our juvenile custody service specialists wear face coverings,” Preuitt said. “We, similarly to the Sheriff’s Office, are going down progressive discipline if people are not wearing masks or not wearing their face coverings, also if they’re not following up with youth not wearing their face coverings.”
County promoted safety in congregate settings with some room for improvement
The audit also examined the County’s response in other congregate settings, including shelters and adult care homes.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services successfully added additional shelter capacity to support physical distancing, along with clear safety guidance to providers, auditors found. Moving forward, they said, staffing and shelter supply challenges should be expected as the pandemic causes an increase in homelessness.
With about 600 adult care homes in Multnomah County, the report found the County’s Adult Care Home Program adjusted quickly to the pandemic. However, auditors also found the program could improve communication with adult care homes to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local health requirements for the safety of staff and residents.
“The state has allowed us to do outside visits, so we encouraged outside visits for folks so their family can come and visit with them outside,” said Irma Jimenez, who directs the Aging, Disability and Veterans Services Division. “And just most recently, there’s a little bit of flexibility for indoor visits, so another thing that we’re doing is providing that information to the providers when those restrictions get lifted or put in place, we make sure the providers know that.”
Shifting to a teleworking environment
In response to the pandemic, the County had to shift quickly to large numbers of employees teleworking to reduce workplace virus transmission. The audit also explored how the County can strengthen, clarify, and improve teleworking moving forward.
The County’s teleworking rules were originally designed as a mutual agreement when an employee is interested in teleworking under certain circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how the County can continue to serve people in productive, creative ways. It also exposed problems with accessing work equipment, technical difficulties, and access to human resources policies.
“This pandemic gave us the opportunity in many places to see actually we can continue as a government functioning and in many places we can actually be even more productive,” said Travis Graves, interim director of Department of County Assets and chief Human Resources Officer. “So I’m interested in looking to the future in terms of post-pandemic. What do we look like as an organization and what are the implications for that?”
Commissioners thanked the Auditor for offering ways to improve the County’s response in congregate settings and facilities, while also honoring the employees who have worked in person throughout the pandemic.
“This survey was about the employees going into work every single day who don’t have the option of working from home like a lot of us are here,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said, “and doing their jobs and wearing masks for everyone’s safety and that is a lot that we ask of our employees. So I’m really grateful for all the work that they do”
Recommendations for Shelters
Upon issuance of report, county Public Health officials should revise guidance on the public facing website for nonprofit shelter providers within county boundaries to improve clarity, in line with state requirements.
Joint Office of Homeless Services management should include clauses to follow Public Health guidelines in new contracts with shelter providers and in new amendments to contracts with shelter providers.
Recommendations to Sheriff’s Office
To be consistent with CDC guidelines, MCSO should begin exchanging the cloth masks of adults in custody on a daily basis if they are used upon issuance of this report.
With normal no-cost visiting options suspended because of COVID-19 precautions, MCSO should either expand the use of free-phone calls or modify lobby video visit operations to allow for safe use as soon as possible and no later than 90 days within issuance of this report.
Recommendation to the Department of Community Justice
Immediately upon the issuance of this report, we recommend that managers consistently enforce face covering policies with their staff.
Recommendation to the Adult Care Home Program
The ACH Program should perform a review of all recent communication with each ACH and ensure that each ACH has received sufficient information and is aware of requirements and guidelines pertaining to the pandemic. A particular focus is needed in the areas of exposure, infection control, physical distancing and reporting. A review should be performed as soon as possible and no later than 30 days from issuance of this report. If contact is needed the contact should be made within at least 90 days from the issuance of this report.
Recommendations for Guidance section
As soon as possible, the OR OSHA COVID-19 temporary rule implementation committee should complete all new OSHA requirements:
Risk assessment, infection control plan, protocols for potential exposure, and employee training.
Note: management reports that substantial work toward this recommendation has been completed. This work occurred between the time the report was written and when it was issued. We acknowledge that work has been done, but we did not audit that work. We are leaving the recommendation in the report, so we can follow up on the recommendation thoroughly.
By March 2021, Central Human Resources should develop a method for employees to provide COVID-19 related feedback anonymously.
By March 2021, the Chair or her designee should provide employees with a point of contact for COVID-19 safety coordination.
Based on responses to our office’s employee survey, it appears that applying policies is an ongoing challenge. Upon issuance of the report and periodically thereafter, the Chair or her designee should reiterate to managers and employees her expectations that safety policies and recommendations are followed, including the requirement that employees telework as much as possible.
Recommendations for Facilities
Prior to adding in-person capacity at county locations, we recommend that FPM ensure that necessary building modifications, including the installation of partitions, and filter upgrades in HVAC systems have been completed.
Prior to adding in-person capacity at county locations, we recommend that FPM work with its janitorial contractors to ensure that each location has sufficient staffing capacity to ensure the enhanced cleaning recommended by the CDC.
We are told that the county is currently in the process of adding COVID-19 specific cleaning and disinfecting requirements into its contracts with janitorial providers. We recommend that FPM complete these contractual requirements prior to programs adding substantial in-person capacity at county locations.
Recommendations for Teleworking
By July 2021, department directors should provide county-owned computers to employees who frequently telework and should emphasize using county-owned computers for employees who occasionally telework. The county should also provide employees with any other equipment typically used by one person to telework effectively, such as computer mice, computer monitors, and headsets. These examples are meant to be descriptive, not exhaustive.
By February 2022, Central Human Resources should ensure the maintenance of telework information electronically, preferably in Workday to allow:
Accessibility to approved or denied telework agreements at the employee, supervisory, departmental and central levels.
Electronic approvals and updating for better efficiency.
Monitoring of teleworking performance and equity.
Documentation of specific details, such as computer ID numbers, of all county equipment used to telework.
To help ensure fairness among employees, by February 2022, Central Human Resources should indicate potential telework eligibility in county job descriptions.