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The latest updates on the COVID-19 outbreak in South Florida. This page ended its updates as of August 2020. Head here for additional stories on COVID-19 and the pandemic.

Florida Department Of Health Employees: Let Us Work From Home

Gov. Ron DeSantis look on while Andrew Cannons, laboratory director at the Bureau of Public Health Laboratories, explains the testing procedures of potential coronavirus cases at the Florida Department of Health Laboratory in Tampa on March 12, 2020.

Employees at the Florida Department of Health, the state agency that is managing the response to COVID-19, are not being allowed to work from home, even if their jobs are involved in research or other kinds of administrative work, several employees told WLRN.

Earlier this week, the White House released new guidelines calling on employers to allow people to “work from home, if possible.” And the Centers for Disease Control guidelines specific to the state of Florida call for all employers to “review, update, or develop workplace plans to include liberal leave and telework policies.”

Governor Ron DeSantis has also pushed state agencies to be flexible with employees who wish to work at home.

The employees who spoke to WLRN for this story all asked to remain anonymous, for fear of reprisals from management.

“Obviously, we have an epidemiology team, we have people who do clinical work, and it’s normal to not expect them to work from home. It’s not possible,” said a Department of Health employee, who works in Miami-Dade County. “But there are a lot of us who work on policy and things like that, where there’s really no reason we should be coming anywhere near the clinics.”

The Florida Department of Health has offices in every one of the state’s 67 counties, including several offices in each South Florida county. The employee said the office receives a large number of visitors every day, from people asking about COVID-19 treatment and testing, to people looking for other information or treatments.

“We are emergency responders, so everyone in my office accepts that. And if I were called to do work on the COVID crisis, I would be happy to go in,” said the employee, who is a trained healthcare professional. “But I’m not happy -- my partner is immunocompromised -- I’m not happy to go in to just be exposed to the hundred or so people who work in my office, on top of the people coming in and asking questions.”

Another employee in Miami-Dade County told WLRN that the issue has been brought up at staff meetings, but has largely been dismissed by upper management.

“It feels like we’re sending two different messages: that they’re telling people to follow CDC guidelines and on the other hand, they’re making it hard for people, next to impossible for people, me to work from home,” said the employee.

In an emailed statement, the Joint Information Center on COVID-19 for the State of Florida did not dispute the complaints.

The Center referred WLRN to an internal document for state employees timestamped from Monday.

“Telework connected with a declared health emergency must be evaluated on a case by case basis,” reads the document. “Not all positions will be eligible for telework nor will all employees be suited for telework due to a variety of reasons. However, telework is a viable option to assist agencies in maintaining continuity of operations during a health emergency.”

The state Department of Management Services Secretary issued an emergency order on Tuesday that allows for staff to use accrued leave days for any instances related to COVID-19, “including self-isolation after potential exposure, staying home with children due to child care or school closures, and time needed to take care of dependents like an elder parent,” according to the statement sent to WLRN.

Starting on Thursday, a list of state-managed buildings were closed to the public, through April 19, to “protect both employees and visitors.”. Only a small number of those buildings house Department of Health employees in Florida’s 67 counties, while many other agencies are covered.

“The state has a workforce of over 90,000 individuals whose health and well-being are a priority,” Governor DeSantis said at a press conference last week, urging Departments of the state to expand work from home policies. “If they can perform functions at home, now is a good time to do that.”

At the Federal level, last week the Office of Budget Management issued new guidance to federal agencies, saying they are “encouraged to maximize telework flexibilities" for workers living where there has been community spread of the virus.

Florida is one of those locations.

Another employee of the Florida Department of Health works in inspections, and worried that he is being sent into veterinary, dental and other medical facilities without personal protective equipment. 

Facing a shortage of supplies, this week the Florida Division of Emergency Management requested millions of face masks from the federal government, along with 150,000 personal protective equipment kits and other materials. The items are meant to be used by state and local government workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“I'm really worried for my health and bringing the virus back home,” said the employee. 

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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