As coronavirus picture darkens, local governments send some workers home

After first prohibiting remote work even for city employees most vulnerable to coronavirus, St. Petersburg joins other local governments in permitting workers to log on from home
St. Petersburg officials told city employees they cannot work from home as a preventative measure to avoid contracting coronavirus. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
St. Petersburg officials told city employees they cannot work from home as a preventative measure to avoid contracting coronavirus. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Mar. 16, 2020|Updated Mar. 16, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG — In a reversal, Mayor Rick Kriseman on Monday said city employees who have concerns over being exposed to coronavirus at work will be allowed to log on from home.

The new guidance came during an announcement Kriseman made via Facebook Live in which he issued a sweeping directive aimed at stopping the spread of coronavirus.

It’s an about-face from last week, when Kriseman’s administration told supervisors in a memo that city employees — even those most “vulnerable” and “susceptible” to the dangers of coronavirus — could not work from home as a preventative measure unless they use their "annual leave, personal leave, (or) banked holidays” they have accumulated.

“If they really feel they shouldn’t be at work and want to isolate themselves or self-quarantine, they can use their leave, if they think that’s in their best health interest,” Human Resources Director Chris Guella said by phone Friday, explaining the city’s stance.

The rules that St. Petersburg abandoned, though, are still in place in Clearwater. There, working from home as a preventative measure against contracting the virus is not an option, and employees who wish to stay home must take vacation, floating holiday or compensatory time. Even employees who are “more susceptible” cannot work remotely as a preventative measure without taking accrued time or going on unpaid leave.

Monday, Kriseman described his change of course — plus the limitations on bars, restaurants and mass gatherings he announced — as “unprecedented steps to protect the health and safety of our residents and visitors.”

Coronavirus, technically known as COVID-19, is spread through water droplets, like from sneezes or coughs, and has an incubation period that can last for weeks. The infected could walk around not knowing they’re carriers. The illness manifests flu-like symptoms, notably fever and respiratory infection. But some carriers may not show any symptoms at all.

While not usually fatal, the virus can be deadly to those who are elderly, have respiratory issues or compromised immune systems.

For that reason, some employers have been closing offices and either mandating or permitting workers to log on remotely when possible.

Cities and counties face somewhat of a unique problem. They employ both field workers like first responders and wastewater treatment plant operators — employees for whom working remotely is impossible — and office workers, for whom logging on from home is feasible. As the coronavirus picture has changed, local governments have wrestled with how to allow those employees who can work from home to do so.

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St. Petersburg’s initial approach came from concerns over equity, Guella explained Friday.

“Not all jobs can be worked from home, of course," Guella said. "So we’d really only be limited to the professionals, the white-collar jobs.”

Until Kriseman’s announcement Monday, that made St. Petersburg and Clearwater outliers.

“This can change as the situation continues to evolve," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. "In this kind of environment, we will always compare what we’re doing to what the recommendations are (from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to see if we need to make any adjustments.”

Tampa and Hillsborough County governments did not respond to questions about their work-from-home policies during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pinellas County on Friday issued guidance that let supervisors use their discretion in allowing office workers to do their jobs from home if they wish to self-isolate.

“Telecommuting arrangements may be facilitated where appropriate and when they don’t disrupt service to the public or internal users,” county Administrator Barry Burton wrote to county supervisors last week.

Pasco County officials have fielded a handful of requests to work from home, mostly from employees who returned from cruises or vacations. Officials there said supervisors are allowed to grant those requests case by case.

Hernando County on Monday was still finalizing rules. Supervisors were encouraging employees to work from home when possible, acknowledging that many workers won’t be eligible for remote work.

“In those situations,” Hernando officials wrote in a memo to county commissioners, “departments will look for opportunities to remain fully operational while maintaining social distancing whenever possible.”

The memo said the human resources department would provide specific guidance related to sick time, personal time, quarantine guidelines and self-isolation on Monday. It wasn’t available by Monday evening.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

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STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.


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