Mayor Breed: City of SF essential workers deserve safety

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San Francisco is being touted as a leader in the fight to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Yet, San Francisco Water Department employees’ concerns about their safety are minimized, or worse, ignored. They are expected to work as if this pandemic is not even happening. They serve the residents of San Francisco with pride, but are being asked to put routine and non-essential work before their health and well-being.

Elected officials and health experts have repeatedly underscored that social distancing is the best weapon we have to protect ourselves from contracting – or unwittingly spreading – the coronavirus. However, it is not possible to maintain social distancing for a crew of several people installing a water service or carrying out strenuous physical work in various Water Department shops.

SFWD, a revenue-generating department, has not scaled back work. Mayor Breed has ordered virtually all construction within San Francisco to be stopped, with those crews sent home to shelter in place. But Water Department employees are still out in public, installing water services for these same buildings that have been shut down due to COVID-19. On the other hand, employees in SF’s Sewer Department have been working one week on, two weeks off, with no reduction in pay, in order to reduce their exposure.

Another issue is the lack of sufficient personal protective equipment. Workers are allotted one face mask per day which becomes unusable early in their shifts. There has not been training or guidance, nor physical tools, for employees to do their work safely, although much of the work they are doing simply cannot be done safely during these times.

Additionally, there is the issue of vulnerability for at-will (known as Category-18) and “as needed” staff, who can be laid off at any time with no reason. They work side by side with permanent employees, but are often prevented from speaking out because they have to weigh their own lives against the potential repercussions of speaking up when they are instructed to put themselves in jeopardy.

We cannot help but wonder if the reason SFWD workers feel disposable, rather than “essential,” is because the City is putting Water Department revenue above the very life and health of its workforce. In spite of government leaders’ claims to the contrary, this does not seem like “we are all in this together.” We, the undersigned SFWD (City Distribution Division) employees, their families, ratepayers and concerned community members call on City and PUC leaders to:

1. Reduce the scope of SFWD operations to truly essential work. Institute a one week on/two weeks off schedule with no loss of pay, similar to staff in the Sewer Department. Social distancing is at the very heart of the strategy to combat the virus so minimizing the number of people reporting to work decreases their exposure rate.

2. Provide sufficient personal protective equipment in order to do every job safely, whether in the field, shops or offices. If such PPE is not available, SFWD employees should not be asked to compromise their lives and the health and safety of their families, especially for routine work. Enhanced training to address these unprecedented working conditions, backed up by the supplies and infrastructure to carry it out, is necessary for the most vulnerable workers. If personal vehicles are used to get to job sites and maintain social distancing, the City should assume the related liability.

3. Provide equal and safe working conditions for every employee. Eliminate Category-18 and other vulnerable hiring statuses, and make these workers permanent employees. San Francisco should be leading the way on equality for all, not promoting second class citizenship for some. No retaliation against any employee.