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Dozens of California agencies consider sending workers home to combat coronavirus

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference in Sacramento last month.
(Associated Press)

At Gov. Gavin Newsom’s urging, businesses around the state have closed their doors and sent employees home to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. But one of the largest employers was slow to offer its workforce clear guidance on who should be working remotely: the state of California.

That could soon change. State officials told employees Wednesday that departments are “looking at all opportunities to provide telework.” But it remains unclear how aggressive state departments will be in keeping workers home or how many jobs will be considered eligible for such work. With more than 230,000 employees, officials said, the state’s wide-ranging workforce makes it difficult to roll out sweeping telecommute options for government workers.

For example, healthcare workers, police officers and firefighters can’t work from home. Other jobs need access to confidential information, and some departments have limits on how many people can access servers remotely.

However, the state’s rollout of telecommute options for those who can work remotely has been slow, with a week of confusing guidelines for who should be allowed to work from home. Managers were told to review individual requests to telecommute, but it was unclear what paperwork or criteria they were supposed to use.

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“We are clearly looking to push more of our nonessential workforce to be at home to do work electronically,” Newsom said Tuesday. “It’s already happening across agencies. We’re just trying to really hone in a little bit more.”

The Newsom administration’s move to increase telecommuting comes after the Sacramento County Public Health Department directed local workplaces and businesses Tuesday to use telecommuting and teleconferencing for employees and allow only workers performing essential duties to go into an office. Most state agencies are in Sacramento, creating confusion among workers about whether they were supposed to go into work Wednesday.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, director of the Sacramento County Department of Health Services, said asking many state workers to telecommute would have a major effect on limiting the community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Beilenson said the county’s directive is not legally enforceable and does not apply to the state’s workforce, although he’s hopeful that as many government workers as possible will be permitted to telecommute.

“This is important to reducing the spread of the disease,” Beilenson said. “We are strongly urging people to stay at home in general.

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Some agencies have already carried out changes that will reduce workloads and interactions with the public. The state Franchise Tax Board announced last week that California tax returns could be sent in as late as July 15 for any taxpayer who stated a coronavirus-related reason for the delay. The Department of Motor Vehicles asked police officers to not enforce recently overdue car registrations or expired driver’s licenses over the next two months to reduce the number of people going to field offices.

California’s number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise daily, largely because of the increased availability to diagnose for the virus. Across the state, more than 800 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, although officials have noted that is just a fraction of the actual number of people infected.

Newsom’s latest directive comes after the governor said that all California restaurants should close their doors to dine-in customers and that gyms, health clubs and movie theaters should also suspend operations. Newsom’s decision to call for further limitations on public life followed piecemeal decisions in cities and counties to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Los Angeles was one of the first cities to close bars, nightclubs, movie theaters and gyms, and limited restaurants to takeout or delivery only until March 31, following an order from Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Still, as with state employees, the more than 50,000 city workers in Los Angeles were still asked to go to work, with telecommuting options available to only some employees, according to emergency guidelines issued by the city’s Personnel Department.

Garcetti said he expected the city’s telecommuting guidelines to change.

All Los Angeles County government buildings closed Monday, while other counties announced curtailed operations in order to ensure workers can be home.


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