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Strike threat lingers amid COVID-19 outbreak

Jackson County government and a union representing hundreds of its workers have yet to reach an agreement to avert a possible strike, even as workers and the rest of the community scramble to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“Our number one concern is providing high quality public services for the people of Jackson County,” said union member Angela Cruthirds, an office assistant with Jackson County Health and Human Services. “Our bargaining team is currently working to determine strike details that will ensure there is no impact on public health. While our members have voted to authorize a strike, we have not yet set a date, and our members continue to want the county commissioners and managers to reach a fair deal before there’s a work stoppage.”

Workers have to give the county 10 days notice if they decide to move forward with a strike.

“We’re hoping that the employees don’t strike and that we can come to an agreement with the employees — especially now that we’re facing this global pandemic,” said Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton. “However, we do have plans in place — not just developed today, but longstanding plans in place — so we can be sure should we be faced with multiple types of emergencies we can respond and provide critical functions to our citizens.”

Officials said Jackson County Health and Human Services has plans in place to deal with emergencies, including an outbreak of disease, strikes and natural disasters.

The Continuity of Operations Plan includes steps for dealing with a staffing shortage or if buildings become unsafe to work inside, officials said.

If staffing problems arise, regardless of the reason, Jackson County Health and Human Services may respond by reassigning staff as needed or looking at other staffing contingency plans, officials said.

Benton said the Service Employees International Union covers workers in a variety of jobs, but does not include Jackson County Sheriff’s Office or adult parole and probation employees. Those employees are part of different unions and work under different contracts. By law, they are not allowed to go on strike.

Joseph Hedberg is a county airport security officer who is part of SEIU.

“Members care about providing quality assistance to the public, and we don’t want to jeopardize that,” he said. “Most county workers wouldn’t work for the county if they didn’t care about the community.”

Union members said a big sticking point for them is their current health insurance. High out-of-pocket costs are putting health care out of reach for many employees, especially those who don’t earn much.

“The coronavirus shines a spotlight on the county’s failure to provide employees with affordable health care,” Cruthirds said.

She said employees have been working for months without a contract and no agreement on a plan for more affordable health care.

“The best thing the county can do right now to protect public health is to settle this contract, and give us an affordable health care plan, so we remain at work and keep ourselves and this community healthy,” Cruthirds said.

Both sides agree the current plan is expensive, but officials say that’s the plan the union picked out.

Workers want to join a state-managed health insurance pool that will cost them less. Officials want workers to join a health insurance plan used by county managers that will lower workers’ costs.

Workers want a higher cost-of-living raise than the county is offering, plus a salary study and raises for people who earn less than their peers in comparable counties.

If they do go on strike, they will not be paid and will have to reimburse the county about $80 per day to cover the current employer and employee contribution toward their health insurance, Benton said.

While a strike would not involve Sheriff’s Office employees who staff the Jackson County Jail, Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County medical director, said officials are aware COVID-19 poses a special threat to inmates and staff at the jail.

COVID-19 poses higher risks for people with compromised health in confined facilities, including jails and nursing homes, Shames said.

On average, people who are jailed have more health problems than the rest of the population, especially if they have a lengthy struggle with addiction or homelessness.

Shames said the jail has existing plans, supplies and facilities to deal with infectious respiratory diseases, including rooms that don’t circulate infected air to other parts of the jail.

As for Jackson County parks, officials said they are taking the safety and health of guests seriously.

The parks department uses disinfectant cleaning supplies that are effective against the COVID-19 virus, officials said.

Restrooms are cleaned on a regular schedule, depending upon usage and season. Busy parks, such as the Southern Oregon RV Park, Emigrant Lake and other open campgrounds are cleaned and sanitized at least daily. Other sites, such as boat ramps and dispersed recreation sites, are cleaned on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule at a minimum, officials said.

They said individual restrooms will be posted with a cleaning schedule for guest reference. Yurts and cabins are always cleaned prior to each reservation. As the summer season approaches and park use increases along with park staffing levels, the cleaning schedules will change and service will occur on a daily basis at all sites.

Statewide, SEIU is urging employers to help protect working families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They want employers to support telework options, provide the right safety equipment and supplies to workers who have to be on site, help workers find child care, and take steps to limit financial hardship.

Governor Kate Brown is recommending employers increase the physical space between workers in offices and at job sites, limit in-person meetings, limit travel and stagger work schedules if possible to reduce the number of people at work at the same time.

She has called for a four-week cancellation of all gatherings over 250 people. The ban doesn’t include schools or stores.

Brown wants schools to halt nonessential group gatherings, including field trips and competitions.

So far, Jackson County health officials have identified two COVID-19 cases within the county.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Mail Tribune / file photoHundreds of Jackson County workers could go on strike amid the coronavirus outbreak.