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The Covid-19 Pandemic

by Fern Shen5:03 pmMar 17, 20200

City prepares for some employees to work from home

Employees under Joan Pratt say they could telework, but that the Comptroller has been defying a mayoral directive requiring eligible city workers to do so

Above: Other large Maryland jurisdictions are ordering the public to cover their faces when outside. (Fern Shen)

Baltimore officials who have been warning the public to stay home if possible and maintain a safe “social distance” have been tackling a closer-to-home problem as the coronavirus crisis has blossomed:

How to keep city workers safe while making sure Baltimore government functions adequately.

“Over the past 24 hours, a lot of staff here and staff on the 5th floor [of City Hall] are getting ready to telework,” said Stefanie Mavronis, director of communications for Council President Brandon Scott.

Effective tomorrow (March 18) all city employees designated as telework eligible “will be required to work from home or remote locations until further notice,” Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young decreed on Saturday.

“Human Resources, the Labor Commissioner and the Law Department have been working around the clock to identify folks who are eligible,” said Lester Davis, Young’s spokesman.

A 32-page COVID-19 response plan – hastily assembled by the Department of Human Resources – includes a section on teleworking, but decisions are still being made on how to implement it.

Under the plan, priority levels are described, ranging from Priority 1 “Public Safety and Security” workers, such as police and firefighters, to Priority 4 “Deferrable Services” employees.

Mavronis said the city’s IT professionals “are working really hard” to make sure those who need access to the server can do so properly and securely, noting they are challenged by some of the issues of outdated technology exposed after last year’s malware attack.

(The response plan notes that the Virtual Public Network, or VPN, is limited “due to budgetary considerations . . . so employees should not expect to be provided VPN.”)

Tomorrow’s Board of Estimates meeting will go forward, Scott announced, but with members sitting farther apart from each other and the audience only allowed to occupy every other seat.

Under discussion is the possibility of conducting the weekly board meetings virtually, a challenge given the need to allow for public participation.

Meanwhile, though, “by Wednesday, most everyone who is able to work from home will be,” Mavronis said.

Complaints at Comptroller’s Office

But some city employees say they are being told they must come in to work and aren’t happy about it. This is particularly true for those who work under Comptroller Joan Pratt.

“I have kids under five. If I get sick and can’t work, how do we pay for daycare? I’m just worried,” said one of many people who work at the comptroller’s office and spoke with The Brew.

While supervisors of other departments are working to comply with Young’s directive and help employees work from home if possible, Pratt and her deputy, Bernice H. Taylor, have told employees they must come into the office, they said.

“We all have the capacity to work from home”  – City employee.

This includes the multiple divisions under Pratt’s control: real estate, auditing, municipal post office, municipal telephone exchange and the comptroller’s office itself.

“Every employee for the Department of Audits has a laptop and a VPN,” a person who works for the city auditor on the 9th floor of the Benton Building complained. “We all have the capacity to work from home.”

“I have everyone’s number I need to call, everyone’s email,” this person said. “It would be no different.”

Pratt said today it is not true that employees have been told they must come to work despite concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus.

”People are getting ahead of it. Maybe because they want to go home”  – Comptroller Joan Pratt.

“We are currently determining who is eligible to work at home,” she told The Brew. “We’re in the process of meeting with department heads and staff and the city auditor.”

Why then all the complaints?

“People are getting ahead of it,” Pratt said. “Maybe because they want to go home.”

Close Quarters, Sewage

The leakage yesterday of sewage from a burst pipe in the 9th floor ceiling in the Benton building made the office cubicle space there especially unpleasant, said one of the auditor’s office employees, noting that the office includes a person with asthma, another who is diabetic and an employee over 70.

Pratt said the sewage leak was quickly dealt with yesterday and is now being repaired.

“When I was told about the sewage I immediately reported it to Risk Management and the Department of General Services,” she said. “I’ve been informed by Risk Management that the area is safe.”

Wherever they work, the employees completing audits will face some challenges since many of the people they need to contact are not in their offices because of the COVID-19 response, according to another person, who noted that mandated agency audits are not due until December 2020.

“It seems like the comptroller is putting audits over people,” the employee said.

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