LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Eight Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services employees told 3 News Now Investigators that they were not allowed to work from home despite underlying conditions they or household members have.
Some had missed time and since been allowed to work from home, but they voiced concerns for vulnerable coworkers who still must choose between going to work in the office, calling in sick or taking vacation time.
"It makes me feel like they do not care at all about my well being," a DHHS employee said, "just brushed to the side from every layer of management."
Some employees we spoke with drained all or most of their sick leave and vacation time in order to avoid catching the virus, despite an addition ten days of sick leave provided due to the coronavirus. Directed health measures were announced in Nebraska on March 18.
"A lot of people have contacted us that have exhausted all of their sick leave, exhausted vacation leave," said Justin Hubly, the executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the union for state employees.
While some employees have had work from home requests approved after weeks of waiting, Hubly said Friday there's more work to be done and he's working with several employees still not approved to work from home despite underlying conditions.
At least one DHHS office has had a case of the coronavirus in its doors, Hubly said. The Grand Island South Pine office is closed "out of an abundance of caution," DHHS spokesperson Khalilah LeGrand said in a statement.
More than 1,600 petitions were delivered to Gov. Pete Ricketts on April 15 to support additional protections for state employees, according to the union, which organized the petition drive. The petitions asked for all employees who can work from home to be allowed to do so. For state employees who can't work from home, they asked for a $2 increase in hourly wage for hazard pay.
There are many conditions that can make someone especially vulnerable to COVID-19, including people with lung disease, asthma, serious heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, and kidney and liver disease, according to the CDC. Older adults are also at greater risk. Other conditions result in compromised immune systems.
Most of the DHHS employees 3 News Now Investigators spoke with work at call centers in Fremont and Scottsbluff, where employees work in the Children and Family Services or Medicaid and Long-Term Care division.
The employees said there's nothing preventing them from working from home. In a statement, DHHS said it's not that simple. Limits on the call centers' technological infrastructure allow only 40% of the workforce in those offices to work remotely, LeGrand said.
"Technological capacity does not end with a teammate simply being in possession of a computer and cellphone," she said in a statement. "Intricate systems support DHHS’ ability to process benefits, provider payments and operate each of its fine divisions.
"We must balance maintaining a safe environment for our teammates and high-quality service delivery with our technological capabilities."
About 46% of DHHS employees are working from home, LeGrand said.
"Great strides have been made with respect to increasing bandwidth and deploying additional staff to work remotely as appropriate," she said.
One employee said they had a second request denied even after they had successfully worked from home.
Employees said they weren't happy with how DHHS determined which employees would be permitted to work from home. One felt the decision not to include them was made out of spite.
DHHS often reminds employees not to show up to work when sick or potentially exposed and to practice social distancing in the office, LeGrand said.
"Careful consideration is given to all requests including, but not limited to: ability for position to transition to a remote status, ability to protect client information, ensuring that technological capacity is not exceeded," LeGrand said.
All coronavirus-related medical costs are free for employees, LeGrand said.
"We sincerely appreciated every teammate who is working during these unprecedented times as they are providing essential supports to vulnerable Nebraskans daily," she said.