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As Masks Arrive, Some Oregon Employment Dept. Workers Fear Coronavirus Spread At Work

The Oregon Employment Department's homepage.
The Oregon Employment Department's homepage.

They process unemployment claims caused by the coronavirus. Some are worried about getting the same virus at work.

UPDATE (4:00 p.m. PT) -- The Oregon Employment Department is expecting a shipment on Monday: 3,000 face masks and roughly 300 face shields.

Then, for the first time, the department will require masks for employees who process unemployment claims, a job that makes them frontline workers for the economy.  

But some workers are upset the agency did not mandate masks sooner. OPB heard from multiple employees who are worried about contracting the same virus that has devastated the livelihoods of the people they are trying to help. Those employees asked that their names not be used to protect their jobs.

“Theoretically the mission of this agency is to soften the economic blow, so that parents can feed their children, people can pay their rent,” said one claims specialist in Wilsonville. “If we have to shut down, that slows this process down even more.”

According to Gerstenfeld, 485 people work in the new Wilsonville contact center.

At least two of them have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-June.

The department said five confirmed cases in a building will trigger an office shutdown for deep cleaning. That is what happened to a now-shuttered employment office in Gresham, where seven staff were confirmed to have COVID-19 as of Friday.

The Wilsonville center is much larger. It is at the heart of the agency’s effort to ramp up staffing to meet an historic flood of unemployment claims. Given the stakes, some claims specialists there are stunned that masks have been optional so far.

“It seems unfathomable,” said a second employee. “There are far more people in close proximity in this building than there are in Safeway or Fred Meyer. And all day.”

“But to make it mandatory, we really wanted to make sure – and need to make sure – that we can provide it, in case there’s employees that don’t have their own,” he said.

Many Oregonians already have masks, which are required in indoor public spaces, like grocery stores.

Unlike those grocery stores, employment offices are closed to the public during the pandemic. Staff are not automatically required to wear face masks under state guidelines.

“I could care less whether the public is invited in that space or not,” said the second employee. “People are really close.”

Five Wilsonville employees described an office culture in which un-masked movement and chit-chat is common, as is huddling over computer screens to resolve claims issues — especially for new hires.

“The day I got there, I told my mom it was a walking place for COVID,” said a third Wilsonville claims processor.

“There is zero social distancing,” said a fourth employee.

Oregon OSHA has received at least two COVID-related complaints about the Wilsonville site. Both cited inadequate social distancing and the absence of a facemask requirement. 

“The general principle we apply is if you cannot maintain six foot distance or barriers – and certainly if you cannot maintain three foot distance – then we would expect that other mechanisms would be taken, including facial coverings or face shields,” he said.

Wood said OED requested a telephone consultation with Oregon OSHA about COVID-19 policies and procedures earlier in the pandemic.

Gerstenfeld said all Wilsonville staff are seated 6 feet apart in every direction — a measurement taken while opening the center. He acknowledged that some workers may come closer to the people behind them if they back up from their desk by a foot or two.

“The people that are in the next row behind you,” said the fourth Wilsonville employee, “those people I could turn around touch.”

Gerstenfeld said the department has also encouraged claims specialists to use video and instant messaging tools when they need help, to minimize close, in-person consultations.

As coronavirus infections have grown in Oregon and at his agency, Gerstenfeld has increasingly recognized the two-fold stress employees feel.

“Almost everyone here feels the pressure of getting benefits to people and hears every day that need. And it’s pretty crushing,” he said. “And then also people being nervous about their own safety.”

The department is piloting a long-requested telework experiment, accelerated by the Gresham outbreak. It is allowing Gresham workers in quarantine to process Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims from home for the first time.

Gerstenfeld said he hopes the pilot is successful enough to expand.

The first claims specialist in Wilsonville was far more blunt about the risk of the virus at work:

“People aren’t gonna get paid their money,” they said, “if there are no humans to press the buttons.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.