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COVID outbreak strikes county elections office days before primaries

At least 38 employees have tested positive for the virus, according to county officials
Self test kit for COVID-19 showing positive result

A COVID-19 outbreak has struck the San Mateo County Elections Office just a week before Election Day, affecting more than 30 employees, according to officials. 

As of Wednesday morning, at least 38 of the office’s 503 employees are out sick, according to Assistant Assessor Jim Irizarry. Though the office has an estimated 150 full-time, regular employees, several hundred more are brought on during election season. Irizarry said the majority of current infections are among those who are part of the “extra help,” particularly those working in warehouse operations.

“Several of the warehouse employees carpool to work,” Irizarry said in a phone call with the Pulse. “So you can imagine having five people in a Toyota and one is infected, then all of them may wind up testing positive.”

He described his workplace as “one of the safest office environments and vote centers environments, possibly in the state.”

“We’ve set the standard for safety in the work environment,” he said, naming masking, social distancing, equipment sanitization and cubicle plexiglass as some of the measures the office has taken to ensure worker safety. He also pointed to rising case numbers countywide and speculated that the holiday weekend may have contributed to the spread.

“San Mateo County as a whole is experiencing a high spike in COVID numbers,” Irizarry said. “The majority of the infections that occur—by far and away—occur off site. You are safer here at work with the safety practices that we follow.”

But two people who work in the Elections Office tell a different story. 

Mary Hill, a county elections specialist and SEIU 521 union representative, disputed Irizarry’s characterization, blaming unsanitary working conditions and poor communication for the outbreak. She expressed particular frustration with lax COVID precautions and close working quarters, adding that she and her colleagues had repeatedly asked their supervisors for permission to work from home when possible but that their requests were denied by management. 

According to Irizarry, the office follows county health guidelines, which recommend but do not require masks and social distancing. 

“If people start working [within] three feet, two feet, and they stay in very close environments when they don't have to, then that's a violation of the policy,” he said.

He added that employees’ work-from-home flexibility varies and is determined by their job classification. However, he emphasized that his staffers are performing “an essential service,” particularly during an election season. 

“We’re the frontline of democracy,” he said. “We're a very highly public-facing operation. So we need people on-site.”

Hill told the Pulse that, while some non-essential workers were instructed by their supervisors to work from home “for the foreseeable future,” others are still reporting to the office. 

Cho Chiu is one such county elections specialist currently on-site. She said that one of her colleagues passed out rapid tests to staffers before their Wednesday morning shift. Five tested positive and were sent home.

“It’s insane,” Chiu told the Pulse. “This is like the [TV show] Survivor, seeing who’s the last one standing.”

Irizarry said that individuals who are asymptomatic or have a negative COVID test are permitted to return to work immediately. 

In the meantime, full-time and temporary election staffers, who are missing roughly 7% of their workforce so far, are trying to make do with less. 

“With [a] majority of our warehouse staff out, we are scrambling to find staff for these operations,” Chiu said. 

Currently, the Vote Center is operating with only half of their four-person team, while the phone bank, which normally has 6-7 workers, is also critically understaffed, the individual said. 

Irizarry confirmed that only two people were working the phone bank but said that calls are being funneled to other on-site employees.

“But yes,” he added, “if there's a large volume of calls, you might wait longer. That is true. That’s possible.”

Managing elections by nature is complex and requires an ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, Irizarry said. But that's something he believes they’ve been able to do successfully in this situation.

“We're managing it, I think, pretty well with the reallocation of personnel. It won’t really impact the election per se, because most of the people will be voting by mail.”

Irizarry said that he became aware of the first positive cases last Friday. However, office staff was not officially notified of the outbreak until Tuesday evening. Chief Elections Officer & Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Mark Church, who did not respond to requests for comment, emailed a general advisory to staff around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, warning them of the possible COVID exposure. 

The office, which is required to alert all employees of each reported positive case within one business day, has sent out 35 official notifications so far.

Despite critical understaffing, the management and workers alike are determined to get through the next week. Hill said that "the election will still happen" and praised the hard work of staff members.

Irizarry acknowledged that employees will be asked to do more to accommodate for staffing shortages.

“I think all of us have to step up our game,” he said. “We might have to put in overtime. We might have to do things that we're not accustomed to do. This is very much of a team effort.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest count of positive COVID cases.


Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah, a Menlo Park native, joined the Redwood City Pulse in 2021. She covers everything from education and climate to housing and city government. Previously she worked as the online editor for California magazine in Berkeley and co-hosts a podcast.
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