Around 250 part-time employees of the city of Vancouver are out of work as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and have been instructed by City Hall to seek state unemployment benefits.
Across the city, municipal facilities are shuttered. At the Water Resources Education Center, a locked door turned away the public Monday afternoon, and a sign-in sheet indicated that the facility was open to just a very limited number of workers and cleaning staff. At the Marshall Community Center, the windows have gone dark. Yellow caution tape has roped off playground structures that would usually be crawling with children at the start of spring.
The closures of all the city’s public facilities impact more than just its full-time employees, who are primarily working from home in an effort to enact social distancing protocol, said Eric Holmes, the Vancouver city manager.
Currently 254 part-time, temporary or on-call employees “are not being called for work assignments at this time,” Carol Bua, spokeswoman for the city, wrote in an email to The Columbian.
“We’ve had to transition away from the use of temporary employees. We use them across a number of our services,” Holmes said. “As far as regularly benefited employees, city employees, we have not laid anyone off.”
City Hall’s human resources department provided the former part-time staffers with information on how to apply for unemployment insurance benefits, Bua said.
The city hires temporary workers to tackle specific projects, Bua added. They also encompass Vancouver’s seasonal workers — for example, those who might be hired to run the camp programs with the city’s Parks and Recreation department, which were scheduled to start this week. Those workers are exempt from the typical benefits afforded to full-time or salaried staffers.
The Washington Employment Security Department eased the qualifications for people seeking certain unemployment insurance benefits last week. The change opened up state unemployment assistance to part-time workers temporarily laid off as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, allowing them to apply for a “standby” status previously only afforded to full-time workers.
“If you have an anticipated date that you will return to work, under the emergency rules we put into place as a result of COVID-19, standby is available to all full-time, part-time, and other less than full-time employees,” ESD’s website states.
“If you worked part time in the last 18 months, you must meet the minimum requirement of having worked 680 hours in your base year in order to have an unemployment claim.”
Shift to telework, for those who can
The current rule of thumb at City Hall, Holmes said, is that anyone who can do their job remotely at this point is working from home.
The big shift to teleworking happened Wednesday, he added. City Hall is currently only staffed by a handful of administrative and IT personnel, Holmes said.
Not every full-time staffer can perform their job responsibilities remotely, however.
“First responders, police and fire are remaining in their full operational status,” Holmes said.
In the Public Works Department, staff have been reassigned to essential functions only — water, sewer and sanitary teams are still at work, Holmes said, as are transportation and traffic control systems that are necessary for public safety. Other nonessential functions, like landscaping, have been suspended.
The city also elected to keep some of its public restrooms open, following some waffling back and forth over whether the facilities could be safely sanitized.
After finding out that they had been reassigned to clean the restrooms last week, a team of maintenance workers raised alarms about the lack of personal protective equipment and hazardous materials training recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One worker filed work safety complaints with City Hall and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
“Out of respect and due diligence to these employee concerns, the city acted quickly and, closed the restrooms immediately,” Parks and Recreation Director Julie Hannon wrote in an email to The Columbian on Monday.
After seeking guidance from public health officials, Hannon added, her department reached out to the city’s contracted janitorial service, which uses a strong airborne disinfectant to clean restrooms.
“We engaged with our janitorial contractor, who has a different “fogging” technology. This contractor (is) using the fogging technology along with a fogging device to sanitize surfaces and spaces.”
Using the janitorial contractor to sanitize the facilities, restrooms at five city parks are expected to remain open to the public through the COVID-19 outbreak: Esther Short Park, Marshall Park, the Marine Park Boat Launch, Leroy Haagen Memorial Park and Devine Park at the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail.
The restrooms at Vancouver Waterfront Park will also remain open, with a different private contractor providing cleaning services.
“These restrooms provide necessary facilities for those unhoused populations in Vancouver,” Hannon wrote.