Gov. Ron DeSantis likes to highlight the role that personal responsibility plays in managing the pandemic, and he is right. But that’s not an excuse for the state to keep its workers in the dark about COVID-related workplace safety. That’s dangerous to the employees and the public alike and a risk to the continuity of government services. DeSantis and other statewide leaders need to get employees in the loop and state offices on the same page.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, Florida’s state workers are struggling. As Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported, COVID-19 outbreaks have closed departments and offices. And when their colleagues fall ill, some state employees say they aren’t being told. “The workers are very scared,” said Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida Council 79, which represents about 47,000, or nearly half, of state workers. “The governor wants everything open and running.”
Open and running is one thing. So is opposing mask and vaccine mandates in the workplace. But agencies under DeSantis’ control began ordering employees back to their offices last October. And since then, agencies have said little publicly about how their employees have fared. On Facebook, Department of Revenue employees have publicly complained of not knowing when their coworkers fall ill. “They don’t tell us when people have been in the building sick,” one Department of Revenue employee wrote. “We have to hear through the grapevine that someone is in the hospital or dead. If we complain, we are offered demotions.”
It’s no surprise that COVID has impacted the operations of state agencies as it has affected other public and private employers. One Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office was closed this summer because of an outbreak. Employees at the departments of State, Economic Opportunity and Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have complained to their union that they were not notified about infected colleagues until weeks after an employee was sent home.
Leaving employees uninformed makes it impossible for them to make sensible decisions about their personal safety. When the Times/Herald asked for information on safety protocols from the offices of the governor and the three Cabinet members — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — only Fried’s office responded. But none provided data on how many of their employees have fallen ill. Fried’s office said it doesn’t track COVID cases out of employee privacy concerns.
But tracking the outbreak across the state’s workforce doesn’t require compromising privacy. Industries already track vaccination rates across their professions. School districts across Florida have published online dashboards for weeks showing infections and quarantines of students and staff — without revealing names or other personal details. Tracking the numbers for state employees would be a tool for improving workplace safety.
State agencies need clearer and more standardized policies for employees to work from home or satellite locations. And employees need timely notice of when colleagues are infected. Much of the angst here can be resolved by having more open lines of communication at state offices and by managers removing any fear employees have in discussing COVID-19.
Floridians have an interest in state employees showing up for work, and in these employees feeling valued and respected. Workplace morale is a key factor in any operation’s success. And the public deserves to know if the state government managing this crisis is setting the right example.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.