Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in many different fields have experienced some form of risk of contracting the virus, not least of which are those working for local governments.
That includes the city of Santa Fe, where 10 employees across different departments tested positive in a single week, according to information provided by the city.
The topic of employees being at risk of contracting and then testing positive for the coronavirus has been on the minds of multiple public officials in recent days.
“It’s not a secret that we’ve got cases,” Mayor Alan Webber told reporters last week. “People in our city workforce are subject to the same spread of COVID as anybody else.”
But several city employees across different departments told the Journal that communication with employees about the risk they face of catching COVID-19 has often been inconsistent and that procedures are often not followed by supervisors.
Many said they feel unsafe at work as a result.
Gil Martinez, vice president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3999, said city leaders have been mum on specific instances of employees testing positive for much of the pandemic.
“There was no transparency – if somebody tested positive, it was top secret,” Martinez said.
The city has only recently begun announcing when an employee tests positive and in which department or division that employee works, information that has typically come in the form of daily updates.
But those updates are shared only within the city among employees and staff. As of Thursday, the city still had not shared that information with members of the media.
Employees said that, prior to the daily updates, there was little or no update as to which departments had new cases of COVID-19.
“In the beginning, they weren’t even telling us anything about anyone testing positive,” said Maxine Sandoval, who works in the Water Division. “We have a right to know if we should be worried.”
The current updates state which department the person worked in, but not their division or building. Martinez said the vagueness can be very worrying for employees.
“A memo comes out saying that somebody in Public Works is positive and all 200 workers are scared to death,” he said.
In his most recent emergency proclamation, Webber stated plans to implement a screening questionnaire for visitors to city buildings and the possible implementation of regular testing of COVID-19 among employees.
Many other government entities, such as district courts and schools, have had COVID-19 questionnaires for months. When asked why the city had not started sooner, Webber said many city buildings were already closed to the public.
“The spread was under control for the most part for most of our time under the COVID emergency situation,” he said.
Screening had started previously at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center (GCCC) and Bicentennial Pool when they were briefly open to the public. But staff at GCCC have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 in recent weeks.
Five workers at GCCC tested positive in a two-week period, even after the city closed it and other recreation centers on Nov. 16.
As for regular testing of employees, the city said it’s currently not ready to implement that and did not say when it would be ready, if at all.
While employees have tested positive in several departments, public works and recreation had some of the most notable numbers, according to the city and city employees familiar with the matter.
Various employees said some city workers have not worn masks when required. Health officials have said wearing masks, combined with social distancing, can reduce the chances of spreading the virus.
Sandoval said her workspace is not surrounded by any plastic barriers and that not everyone wears masks or socially distances themselves.
“Nobody is visiting these jobs sites to make sure these things are happening,” Sandoval said.
She also said five employees in her division have tested positive in recent weeks, although it’s difficult to know for sure since notifications are not broken down by division.
Even protocols that are being followed have employees worried.
One city worker who tested positive said they were not required to be retested before returning to work and that they wished it had been required. The city follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which states those with COVID-19 can return after 10 days if they no longer have symptoms.
Martinez said he understands the guidance, but he feels like the city could go a step further when it comes to quarantine requirements.
“They’re not making that extra effort,” he said. “They go by the minimum they have to do.”
Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said during a Dec. 1 city council meeting that employees had been reaching out to her with concerns about the protocols not being followed.
“I just want to make sure we are doing everything within city government to make sure safe practices are followed,” she said.
A city spokesperson wrote that the public is notified of employees testing positive “when public safety is an issue.” He added the city has implemented many COVID-safe measures, but that they are always under review, and that employees with concerns should reach out to human resources.
The city’s Human Resource Director, Bernadette Salazar, was not available for an interview for this article.
Martinez said that, while transparency of COVID cases has improved, more can still be done.
“It’s better, but we got a long ways to go,” he said.