Why is this County having workers report for reporting’s sake–meanwhile putting them, their families and our entire community at major risk?”


412-350-4157, Louis.Takacs@AlleghenyCounty.US

(Pittsburgh) March 24, 2020 The following testimony will be presented this evening to Allegheny County Council on behalf of County Controller Chelsa Wagner:

I would like to thank Council President Catena and all members of Council for permitting me to submit the following remarks to be read into the record during tonight’s meeting. I also commend each of you for continuing to work and lead on behalf of our County residents and workforce during this unthinkable time. I would like to speak to you tonight specifically about our County workforce.

The treatment of very many County employees during this crisis has flown in the face of public health advisories (even those given by this County’s own Health Department) and, frankly, basic fairness.

To date, nearly all County employees under the administration are being required to report to work, unless he or she is symptomaticandprovides an excuse through a healthcare provider.This is in spite of the clear science that indicates that COVID-19 can be spread by asymptomatic individuals and that we are experiencing “community spread” in Allegheny County.

Of course, for some, this is totally necessary–and the workers with whom I have spoken fully acknowledge this.

Our Jail guards, nurses, public safety and health personnel and others, such as our custodial staff, are on the front lines of this crisis, and are stepping up and giving of themselves selflessly.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that other County workers should also be unnecessarily reporting to work, when we know the best thing each of us can do is stay home and reduce the spread of the virus, so those who do what is considered “essential work” may be less at risk and so that our health care system may also be preserved to the greatest extent possible.

It is clear to me that the County is not following these advisories in any meaningful fashion. I have received calls from employees and their family members who are both scared and outraged.

Nearly all employees under the administration are reporting to work, often working in close proximity to others, including traveling together to work sites sitting next to one another in the same vehicle. I acknowledge that alternating schedules have been put into place so that fewer individuals are in an office at once, but that is still a woefully inadequate response.

If our government were a private business, we would be subject to fines or jail time due to this behavior.Government must lead and be an example in this crisis.And we must show that we are going to compassionately and ethically care for the wellbeing of our employees both physically and economically. Although Governor Wolf’s order provides for a blanket exemption for public administration, that in no way justifies the requirement that all employees report to work.

Over a week ago, my office began allowing all employees without an absolute need to report to work remotely.Out of 100 employees, we now have just seven who are spending very limited time at the office, using the most heightened safety measures, at staggered shifts to support the continued processing of payroll and vouchers.

And without any problems, we completed payroll for the nearly 7,000 County employees and millions in payments to our vendors, including many local businesses and families who rely upon those payments in areas such as child support or foster care.Other departments such as the Courts and the Treasurer’s office have taken similar measures, showing that this can and should be done.In this day and age, work does not have to stop if we are not at our desks, as you all are illustrating tonight.

Now if you are a carpenter or a laborer, working from home may not be possible. But those individuals shouldn’t be made to report to do work that is not absolutely urgent. And of course many of the projects that our employees in the trades are part of are not active because of the Governor’s order.

We must ask ourselves, and I hope Council will ask the administration,why is this County having workers report for reporting’s sake–meanwhile putting them, their families and our entire community at major risk? Why?

Among these employees, we also have over 700 employees at the County Jail.For both the employees at the Jail and for the inmates, and again for their respective families and the larger community, I would likewise like to urge you to take action and ensure accountability in reducing the status of the County Jail as an urgent threat to public health.This is eminently reasonable and is being done by many of our counterparts nationally during this crisis, particularly by releasing non-violent offenders who are otherwise eligible for release by way of bond (though cannot afford it) under specific parameters that achieve both safety and justice.We simply need to think of our Jail by analogy: as a cruise ship, albeit with much less sanitary conditions and a population with many health issues, and people coming and going off and on that ship constantly and into our community.The impact that a widespread outbreak in the Jail would have on our healthcare systems, our workers, their families, and the larger region is incalculable, and we must be doing everything humanly possible to reduce that risk.

Again, workers and families are worried and scared, as well they should be. I have fielded a number of concerns to this effect, and suspect you all have as well.

This crisis requires much of all of us. Our County has the ability to ease the burdens of workers and their families, and therefore to our larger community, all while simply practicing what we have preached to the private sector:isolate, and unless you absolutely must leave home, stay home.

Let’s not continue to put our workforceandthe larger community at risk by such unnecessary and frankly reckless behavior.Someday, after this is all past, we will reflect and ask, “What did we do when we had the power?” If ever this Council, which has always had the power, needed to act and force the County Executive to do the right thing, now is indeed the time.