State employees still working, want hazard protections

RALEIGH — Much of North Carolina’s workforce is either out of work or working from home, but the state’s public sector workers are largely continuing their jobs as before. Jobs that can be are now being done remotely, but others do not have that option.

“You have a huge, the biggest chunk of the state workforce, that cannot work from home. That would be folks working in the prisons and community corrections and the institutions of the health and human services, that’s the biggest chunk of state government right there,” Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, an advocacy group for the state’s public workers, told NSJ.

These are the workers she is most concerned about. Watkins is asking that the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration do everything they can to move as many of these jobs to remote work environments as they can. And for the ones they cannot, SEANC is asking for hazard pay.

“The people for whom we’re asking hazard pay are those who are mandatory employees but cannot perform the functions of their job while observing social distancing,” Watkins said. “So it would force the state to be serious and realistic about who is mandatory and if they’re able to observe social distancing while carrying out their duties. And if there’s something that can be done remotely, there’s no reason not to do that. It’s in the interest of the public and the employees’ safety.”

DMV workers are one group who Watkins believes can do their work remotely, and she says the legislature has shown a willingness to move in that direction. But correctional workers are a group of particular concern because the disease has been spreading in N.C. prisons, and many have already tested positive. There are 13 correctional officers who tested positively so far, but Watkins believes this is just a small number of the total. There are still many tests outstanding and the only testing that has been done was at Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro.

“There’s no question in my mind,” Watkins said on whether she thinks the number of infected correctional officers is much larger than those 13 reported. “You can’t have inmates who are ill and work in close quarters in that kind of institution and not have some sick staff members. That’s why we’re saying all of the staff members need to be tested now, so we know what we’re dealing with.”

She also said the prisons need to stop transferring prisoners and staff between the facilities so much while this pandemic is ongoing. For example, many officers from Johnston Correctional Institution were moved to Neuse recently. This may make it difficult to identify and address outbreaks in the prison system.

“The goal would be to keep the staff and inmates of each prison where they are,” she said.

While safety for public employees can improve, according to Watkins, it does seem that virtually all state workers are continuing to receive their paychecks.

Watkins said she thinks “everybody is probably still getting paid” and that it is “unfortunate and petty” that some question why all the state’s public sector workers are still employed when so many private sector workers have had their pay, hours or jobs cut.

“I would also question, to anyone who said that, would they prefer more North Carolinians be out of work so our economy could suffer a great blow? And finally, I understand the frustration of people who are not deemed essential and are therefore laid off right now, I have tremendous sympathy and empathy for them, but the same people who don’t think state employees are essential one minute would be livid if they weren’t available to them the next.”

“Other than hazard pay for those limited number of individuals, we’re not rolling in there asking for anything,” Watkins said of SEANC’s legislative priorities during the upcoming short session. “We’re very keenly aware of the responsibility of public employees to be there for the rest of the public during all times, but particularly during difficult times. So we’re just there to help any way we can.”