Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego say they’re not being allowed to work remotely and have been required to use personal leave in order to quarantine themselves at home – even as several employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and many others await test results.
Voice of San Diego spoke with more than a dozen employees from multiple departments in the regional VA.
Employees in departments like mental health and social work, which are doing most of their work by phone and by video, have been asked to come in, despite employee requests to work remotely. Employees who wanted to quarantine or were told by their doctor to do so said they were forced into an unappealing dilemma: Either use annual leave or take time off unpaid, or come into the office to work.
“It just feels like no one is looking out for us,” one of the employees said. Voice of San Diego is withholding the names of individual employees because they fear retaliation from their employer.
“The VA San Diego Healthcare System supports telework as much as possible, while we ensure the right level of staff are on hand to manage this COVID-19 pandemic and care for veterans with other health issues,” said VA spokeswoman Cindy Butler in a statement. “We have also been advising staff to follow COVID-related safety precautions, including not reporting to work if the employee feels ill.”
In the San Diego Counseling Center, several employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and others who work there believe they could have been exposed because they’re unable to work from home.
A March 24 message from San Diego VA Director Dr. Robert Smith to VA employees that was obtained by Voice of San Diego acknowledged five cases have been identified in that building. County officials also confirmed they are investigating multiple known cases among VA employees.
Employees who work in the building told Voice of San Diego that the number of confirmed cases increased to six by the end of Tuesday. Around 20 others who work in the building were reporting symptoms, said employees, and about eight of those people are awaiting their test results.
For more than a week, employees who work in the building say they have known some colleagues had symptoms and had been asking to work remotely, and even presented a plan for how they could do so. Some employees who had symptoms continued going into the office to avoid having to take unpaid leave because they didn’t have enough leave to cover a two-week quarantine.
“All the confusion and obstructionism is actually detrimental to veterans,” one employee told me. “I think that this whole crisis – it’s shining a light on weak points in our country, government and the VA system, too.”
The Battle to Work from Home
Many people working in the San Diego Counseling Center, where several employees have tested positive, work with homeless and formerly homeless veterans as part of the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program. As of the beginning of last week, employees said they had already switched from face-to-face interactions to phone conversations.
Employees in the program said several of them created a plan to work from home. One barrier was that not all employees had laptops that could facilitate remote work. But they suggested workarounds, like coming into the office in shifts, or having people without laptops call those with them to enter notes from calls into the system.
That’s roughly the system they’re using now that several people in the department have tested positive. It was only after the positive tests that they were told to work remotely.
“While we do encourage telework, we also must ensure our providers and their support teams are on hand to care for our patients in-house and ensure they have what they need to perform telehealth appointments with veterans,” Butler said in a statement.
While the employees in the counseling center are now permitted to work from home, others with jobs that similarly could be done remotely continue to work on site.
In other departments, like mental health, many employees have the equipment necessary to work from home and have already undergone training to be able to do so. But many still haven’t been able to work from home when they asked.
“We were asked to transfer as many patients as possible to phone and video, so we thought we’d be able to telework,” one employee told me.
Employees said they were told that they were essential employees because they were part of the health care system.
On Friday, after California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order went into effect, all San Diego VA employees were sent an email, obtained by Voice of San Diego, reminding them that they “are essential and must report for duty, even during the CA Governor’s Stay at Home Order.”
In another email sent to staff Friday evening, San Diego VA Director Robert Smith addressed the work-from-home requests: “Many staff have asked about telework, about being allowed administrative leave, or about other options for remaining at or working from home. Veterans rely on us to be there for them, and providing care to them is our mission. We are also part of our Nation’s emergency response system and may be called on to help other hospitals and the community. This is what we do, in both good and in challenging times.”
Smith noted that some employees who had been approved for telework might be asked to keep working on site to preserve network bandwidth for health care needs, or “to perform essential duties outside their normal jobs.”
Some employees told Voice of San Diego that they had been told that if the VA hospital becomes inundated with coronavirus patients, they may be tapped to assist with administrative work, or to provide mental health and other assistance to the doctors and nurses on the frontlines.
They said they worry that because they’re not isolating themselves now, they could get sick before the day comes when the VA needs all hands on deck.
“They are telling us that we are considered essential, but it feels like we’re expendable because they’re just waiting for all of us to get sick,” another employee said.
In a March 13 memo, Richard A. Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration that oversees VA Medical Centers and outpatient clinics, called for a halt to authorizations allowing administrative employees to telework until further notice, citing concern about overwhelming computer servers that are needed by health care providers for telemedicine, New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported.
But a different email sent by Stone to VA leaders on Sunday, March 22, instructed managers and supervisors to “maximize telework at all times.”
“Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our colleagues in the Office of Information & Technology (OI&T), stress testing on our system bandwidth has been completed and the concerns have now been resolved,” Stone wrote in the email.
The VA did tell employees who weren’t feeling well to stay home over the past few weeks.
But employees told Voice of San Diego that they were required to use their own sick or paid leave if they wanted to stay home because they were experiencing symptoms or were exposed to someone with coronavirus-like symptoms.
Many people didn’t have enough leave to quarantine themselves for two weeks when they had symptoms and couldn’t afford to take the time off unpaid. As a result, employees said, some people with symptoms came into work because they couldn’t forgo a paycheck.
“They put us between a rock and a hard place,” one employee said.