The director of Oregon’s emergency preparedness agency issued a striking mea culpa to staff Thursday, after his office refused for weeks to alert workers about possible exposure to COVID-19 this month.
“I want to express my apologies and sincere regret for any actions, or lack of action, that have created additional anxiety or caused you to lose confidence and trust in OEM Executive Staff,” Office of Emergency Management director Andrew Phelps wrote in an email sent shortly before 4:30 p.m. The agency’s reading of guidance from a variety of sources, Phelps said, “clearly led to confusion on my part and a missed opportunity to provide information that should have been shared.”
The apology comes two days after Phelps' office was forced to reveal to staff that a manager in the agency was ill with a likely case of COVID-19 in early April and that they might have been exposed. As OPB reported Thursday, the director's office was first told of the possible exposure on April 4, but declined for weeks to alert employees, citing privacy concerns.
Since the sick employee was not tested, OEM’s refusal was in line with the state’s existing guidelines, which only require notification if someone tests positive. But it ran contrary to an agreement OEM has with its unionized workers, which says staff must be notified within a day “if management has knowledge that an employee may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.”
It also raised questions about safeguards for workers at OEM, which is helping to lead Oregon’s battle against the pandemic. Not only does the agency help coordinate vast resources, funding and personnel to respond to areas in need, until this week it housed the multi-agency nerve center of the state’s response, the Emergency Coordination Center.
Employees who spoke to OPB in recent days were confused and frustrated by their agency’s unwillingness to be transparent.
Phelps’ apology also comes the same day the president of the OEM employee union, Sidra Metzger-Hines, sent a letter demanding stepped-up safeguards at the agency.
“We do not trust that the executive team at OEM has the safety of the employees in mind, and we do not trust that we will be notified promptly should another exposure happen,” Metzger-Hines wrote to General Michael Stencel, head of the Oregon Military Department, which oversees OEM.
The letter requested that all employees who are at a high risk for COVID-19, or has loved ones who are, be allowed to work remotely, full-time.
“It is the right of all employees … to make the decision regarding what risk they are willing to take for themselves and their loved ones,” Metzger-Hines wrote. “Unfortunately that choice was taken away from them by the executive team, and they no longer trust that they will not be put in the same situation in the future.”
Phelps appears to agree. In his email to employees, the OEM director wrote that employees who wish to be removed from COVID-19 response duties or tele-work should contact their supervisor.
He also wrote that the agency will be more transparent moving forward, writing: “I am committed to providing notification to all employees anytime another employee self-reports symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or self-reports a presumed or confirmed positive test for this virus.”