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As virus spreads, a leading question becomes who is 'essential'

As virus spreads, a leading question becomes who is 'essential'

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ST. LOUIS — The speed by which COVID-19 is spreading in the U.S. is forcing company executives and public officials to make prompt decisions as to whether it’s essential for workers to be at the office.

While many workplaces are asking employees to telecommute, others are still directing staffers to travel to work and sit alongside their colleagues.

There’s little agreement from one sector to another as to what constitutes an essential worker or service.

Aside from first-responders, trash-haulers and jail staff required to maintain public safety and welfare, the option of working from home for city employees is being left to department heads, said Jacob Long, a spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Long said. “It’s department by department. It’s a challenging time for all of us, and there’s no absolute here.”

Krewson sent a citywide staff email Friday saying her office planned to work with department heads to determine staffing needs over the next two weeks. Her email urged employees to continue practicing social distancing, washing hands and, for those feeling sick, to staying home.

A staff email Wednesday from Richard Frank, the city’s head of personnel, instructed employees who self-quarantine to provide a note from their doctor and that an employee’s time in quarantine would count toward regular time on the payroll.

A worker who answered the phone Friday at Grace Hill Settlement House, which operates a food pantry and Head Start programs, said staff there were still working. They consider themselves essential, the employee said, because they provide services to low-income families. The employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, said Grace Hill wouldn’t be allowed to close until the St. Louis health department authorized it.

David Buck, superintendent of the Wright City School District, said personnel were instructed to work from home, but some were not equipped for that yet. “We’re moving to telecommuting as fast as we can,” Buck said.

Staff who work in district buildings must have their temperature taken before entering and answer a series of questions about their recent travel history and whether they’re feeling any symptoms of the coronavirus, he said.

Florissant City Hall was still open Friday, and Andy Quinones, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city was waiting for guidance from St. Louis County health officials or Gov. Mike Parson. There has not been a lot of foot traffic, Quinones said.

If employees are uncomfortable, he said, they can work out of one of two recreation centers that have been closed to the public.

Charter Communications, which has offices in the St. Louis area, said it’s offering optional remote work and practicing social distancing for employees who do come in, a company spokesperson said in an email.

Charter also is providing employees with additional paid time off for “COVID-19 related personal need.”

Other larger national companies are taking similar approaches.

A Boeing spokesman issued a statement saying all employees able to work from home have been told to do so.

“Production continues at this time,” and the company is ramping up its cleaning procedures, said Peter Pedraza, a Boeing spokesman. “We’re assessing the safety of all of our sites and their alignment with local, state and national government guidance.”

Boeing has manufacturing operations in north St. Louis County.

The federal government still is sending employees to work, and concerns are rising about how long that will be sustainable, given the fast-moving nature of the pandemic.

In an angry Facebook post Wednesday, the National Treasury Employees Union called the government’s treatment of employees “shameful.”

“We all know how dangerous this is for employees and the entire population,” the post said.

An IRS employee who works at the call center at the Robert A. Young federal building in downtown St. Louis said managers told employees Thursday that they could apply to be considered “high risk” and be given the opportunity for leave.

He was approved, but many colleagues were not.

“So I’m just off for two weeks,” he said. “We don’t know if we’re getting paid. It sounded like it, but they’ve not come out and said it.”

On Friday, managers said employees could apply to telework, but most are not trained for that. They must have a locked room at home in which to work and a landline, because they deal with sensitive financial information.

“It’s not easily approved, and it disqualified a lot of people,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified out of concern that his employer would sanction him.

He said the rules might have been relaxed because the federal tax filing deadline was moved to July 15.

Hundreds of Transportation Security Administration airport screeners are using leave rather than reporting to work out of concern about becoming infected, reported the Government Executive website, which covers the federal government.

Screeners, who are exposed to hundreds of passengers each day, have tested positive for the virus around the country.

Jeff Lea, spokesman for St. Louis Lambert International Airport, said he had not received any reports of that happening at Lambert.

The National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis County is closed to the public, like other National Archives facilities. The agency released a statement on its website:

“We are doing our best to keep all our employees safe, while also performing our mission-essential work, which includes providing veterans and their families with the records they need to obtain benefits, such as health care, and otherwise support emergency requests related to medical care and burials.”

Staff are practicing social distancing, increasing cleaning measures and are following federal guidelines, the statement said.

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