COVID-19 infects 137 workers in 3 weeks at state tax agency

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Chris Terry, supervisor of the Franchise Tax Board offices on Butterfield Way near Rancho Cordova, waits to distribute COVID-19 test kits to employees on Thursday, October 14, 2021. Over the past three weeks, 137 employees have tested positive for the virus .

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A surge of COVID-19 infections is upending return-to-work plans at the Franchise Tax Board, where 137 employees have tested positive for the virus in the past three weeks, according to employee emails.

The surge at the agency comes as the omicron variant continues its sweep across California, pushing infection rates to levels that remain above pre-surge peaks.

Employees suspect the virus is circulating in agency offices off U.S. Highway 50 between Rosemont and Rancho Cordova, but infection notifications do not identify sources of transmission.

Franchise Tax Board spokeswoman Victoria Ramirez said in an email that the agency followed public health protocols and took extra precautions that made workplace exposure “extremely rare.” .

Emails notifying employees of the 137 notices, ranging from four to 19 a day, were sent from Jan. 11 to Jan. 29. Notices identify the building, floor, and section where each employee works. The Franchise Tax Board is one of the largest agencies in the state, with over 5,600 employees.

The agency’s four buildings include call centers where new hires have had to come for training, though the training is computer-based and facilitated by remote trainers, according to three employees who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.

When employees test positive, they face periods of mandatory isolation under county and state protocols. Sacramento County mandates a minimum isolation period of five days for people who test positive and up to 10 days without retesting or for those who still have a fever.

If Franchise Tax Board employees don’t have accrued sick days—which new hires typically don’t—they face mandatory unpaid time off.

“A week doesn’t seem like a lot to some people, but I’m counting on it to pay my bills,” said a tax technician with children who recently tested positive. “Now I’m afraid I don’t have enough to cover everything, and I can’t do anything.”

Employees have said they want extended leave for COVID-related illnesses and more flexibility when it comes to working from home.

Ramirez, the spokeswoman, said in an email that if employees don’t have accrued time off, their options are unpaid time off, telecommuting, or requesting a time donation through a time off bank. catastrophic to other employees.

A state law that extended additional COVID-19 sick leave for employees expired last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislative Assembly have announced their intention to schedule an additional two weeks until September, which they say will be available retroactively to January 1.

New employees in the offices

Two call center workers said all of their work could be done from home, but they had to come to the office. One said she was well enough to work remotely during her self-isolation period, but was not allowed to.

The two employees, along with another who was able to work from home, said previous groups of new hires went straight to remote work, but the recent group of about four dozen new hires must all report. in the office.

“It’s just us brand new grunts in the office, like the infantry,” said one of the call center workers. The employee said her husband and her husband were each at high risk of illness from the virus and that she had largely stayed home since the pandemic hit.

On any given workday, about 1,400 agency employees work in the office and 4,200 work remotely, Ramirez said. She said employees can request medical accommodations through the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity office to work from home.

She said the agency’s omicron response included postponing its return-to-office plan and sending reminders to supervisors and staff to wear masks, wash their hands and stay home. case of illness.

The agency recently announced a further 90-day postponement of its back-to-office plan, which will eventually require everyone to spend at least half of their work time in the office.

State employees must be vaccinated or tested weekly. Ramirez said the agency had its testing program in place, adding that testing was available for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. She declined to say what percentage of agency employees are vaccinated.

This story was originally published February 2, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. It covers taxes, pensions, unions, state expenses, and the California government. A native of Montana, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.

Esther L. Steinbach