With continuing concern among PEF members about COVID vaccines, telecommuting and workplace safety protocols, PEF Health and Safety and Field Services staff offered a webinar May 12 to share information and advice on those topics and more.
Health and Safety Director Geraldine Stella briefed members on the status of the virus in New York, noting there has been a downtick in the state’s positivity rate, currently at a little more than 1 percent, and the seven-day average is at its lowest since October 2020, at 1.28 percent.
“The hospitalization rate has dropped to a little over 2,000 and the number in ICU has dropped to less than 500,” she said. “What does that tell us? It means that more people are vaccinated and more people have resistance and less are having serious illness.”
Stella said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are also working well against COVID variants.
“Some are more contagious, so it is really important for people to continue those good COVID controls, wearing masks, practicing hygiene,” Stella said. “It also means we want to make sure all of the things we have been saying all along for your workplaces are emphasized, making sure they are safe as possible for members.
“We have seen some relief with the vaccine programs and the CDC has said some restrictions can be relaxed, but until the majority of the population is vaccinated, we are going to continue to fight for lower density in the workplace and better workplace controls,” she said.
New York state is not requiring people be vaccinated to return to work, Stella said. And, while PEF supports the vaccine program, the union also recognizes that some people have legitimate barriers to vaccines.
“We want to make sure people who can receive the vaccine get the right information so they can make an informed decision,” she said. PEF maintains a page on its website with information and members can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.
Precautions in the workplace
PEF Health and Safety Specialist Shawn Bobb said worksites need to be vigilant with control measures.
“We want everybody to understand, there is no one control method that is going to work on its own,” he said. “It’s a layered approach that we’re looking at, including voluntary vaccination, ventilation, low density, social distancing, wearing face coverings and hygiene.
“It’s going to take making sure everybody practices safe COVID conduct,” he said. “We’ve been at this over a year now, there is fatigue setting in. It’s important that we continue to practice safe COVID precautions and remember that we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Bobb gave a brief overview of how proper ventilation can help mitigate the virus in the air.
“Ventilation is important,” he said. “We’ve all heard about being outside versus inside, inside the hazard is more significant. Ventilation is critical to helping reduce the spread of this pathogen. You want to get as much outside air into your space as possible, which helps to dilute and exhaust contaminants.”
Members thinking of using or purchasing air purifiers should make sure they are equipped with HEPA filters and steer clear of electric air purifiers that are as yet unproven.
PEF local leaders will be working with management to ensure proper ventilation. Any members with concerns should speak to their local leaders or steward.
Bobb also touched on social distancing concerns in offices with cubicles.
“The requirement is six feet apart,” he said. “We know people move around in their cubicle and, as they move, they may now be less than the six feet apart. We can look at things like scheduling around it. Have people alternate coming in so they are not sitting side by side.”
PEF Region 10 Coordinator Darlene Williams said people are afraid to go back into large offices because you can’t control what other people do.
“It’s going to be really important to wear your face mask,” she said. “It’s natural to be nervous, it’s natural to be scared. I have been working throughout the pandemic. I work on making sure I can control what I can within my environment. I requested hand sanitzer, latex gloves. Anything I need to keep my area safe.
“This is not going to be easy,” she said. “We’re going to be uncomfortable for a while. But, if you see something strange, talk to Health and Safety.”
Telecommuting going forward
The temporary emergency telecommuting agreement negotiated between PEF and GOER at the start of the pandemic and extended to July 2, is more robust than the contract memorandum in the collective bargaining agreement, but it has served to protect PEF members and to highlight that telecommuting is effective.
“We learned from COVID that telecommuting works,” said Statewide Director of Field Services Katie Vorwald. “Our members are productive and we haven’t seen disciplinary or productivity issues.”
While acknowledging telecommuting doesn’t work for all titles, or for all people, PEF is committed to continued work on the issue. Downstate Director of Field Services Ricardo Cruz, a member of the PEF Contract Team, said the team is optimistic there will be improvements and enhancements to the existing program under the collective bargaining agreement.
As the temporary agreement winds closer to the July 2 expiration, members are cautioned to prepare for a return to work.
“Prepare yourself to come back to work,” Cruz said. “Start preparing child care and other concerns. Be in the mindset that starting July 2, you will return to work.”
Members who believe they qualify for reasonable accommodations are urged to pursue them.
“If you have need of a reasonable accommodation, submit an application,” said Western Director of Field Services Eric Kasnewski. “If you have difficulties filling that out or with the appeal process, reach out to your local field rep.”
Reasonable accommodation guidelines can be found here on the GOER website.
When concerned, PEF advises members to speak to local leaders so action can be taken.
“When we go back to the workplace, we don’t expect you to be the mask police,” Stella said. “We certainly don’t want people to feel like they have to walk around writing tickets to people or to get into arguments with people. We don’t want to create conflicts in the workplace. But we do want to make sure management is going to do the right thing and apply the rules fairly.
“It’s management’s responsibility to make sure people are following policy,” she said. “If they aren’t, you can always go to your supervisor. Or you can go to a PEF steward or local leader. Our Health and Safety people and stewards can work with management to make sure those guidelines are being followed.”
Any PEF member who wishes to watch the hour-long webinar can do so here: https://vimeo.com/549004698