As the number of COVID cases continues to climb, Saratoga County fails repeatedly to hire the appropriate number of contact tracers.
According to the December 16, 2020, Daily Gazette, “… [Saratoga} county has seen its number of active cases grow more than five-fold since the middle of November, setting several new daily records for number of cases confirmed.”
On Tuesday, December 15, 2020, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors authorized the hiring of an additional 25 contract tracers which brings the authorized number to 75. Yet the county has stumbled for months unable to fill the original target of 50 set back in May.
State guidelines require 30 tracers per 100,000 persons. As our county has a population of approximately 269,000, we should have at least 69 tracers.
According to the minutes of the November 4, 2020, Health and Social Services Committee of the County Board:
Currently they have hired 19 and of that 19, 3 did not work out leaving a total of 16 on staff. 10 of the staff are working part time hours and the other 6 work full time.November 4, 2020 minutes
Stunningly, in the midst of the pandemic crisis this November we had the equivalency of about 10 full time tracers when we needed 69.
Does Anyone Think There Is A Problem?
The following people were listed as attending the meeting where the lack of tracers was discussed:
Present: Chairman Dick Lucia; Committee Members Todd Kusnierz, Darren O’Connor, Sandra Winney, Benny Zlotnick; Supervisors Tara Gaston, Mo Wright and Chairman of the Board Preston Allen; Chad Cooke, Matt Rose, County Administrator; Steve Dorsey, County Attorney; J. Wes Carr, Youth Bureau; Sandi Cross, Office for the Aging; Cathy Medick, Public Health; Michael
Prezioso, Mental Health & Addiction.
This roster includes the Chair of the Board of Supervisors, seven other Supervisors, the County Attorney, a representative from Public Health, and the Deputy County Administrator.
Not one of these county officials asked the obvious question: Why in over six months are we utterly failing to deploy enough tracers?
Then, on December 2, 2020, the county’s Human Resources Department posted a notice that the county was no longer accepting applications for contract tracers!
Maybe An Effective Solicitation Might Help?
Until this week, the solicitation for applications on the county website was extremely brief. Missing was any information as to the requirements for the position. It simply announced the position and its pay rate and directed people to send in their resume to a person at a county address. That is send as in U.S. Mail.
So I called the county. It was then that I learned that the requirement for the job was the completion of an on-line, seven hour course at the Johns Hopkins University’s website and a flu shot.
I wrote to both Dr. Daniel Kuhles who is the new Saratoga County Commissioner of Public Health and to Margaret (Marcie) McNamara, head of the Department of Human Resources, asking why they thought the county had been unable to fill the positions.
I received a prompt reply from Ms. McNamara informing me that she had referred my question to Dr. Kuhles. I have not heard from Dr. Kuhles.
Coincidentally, yesterday (December 18, 2020) the county posted an updated solicitation which now properly states the qualifications for the job and describes the duties of the position.
Hopefully, posting a proper solicitation (after eight months) on their website will assist in their efforts to recruit people.
Don’t Email That!
Interestingly, the new solicitation indicates, though, that neither email nor fax applications will be accepted. Why the county is requiring hard copies of applications to be mailed is hard to understand. If they want to hire people as quickly as possible, requiring applicants to use the U.S. Postal Service seems like just another impediment.
This is of course the holiday season. I went to the post office two days ago and the line was so long that I gave up trying to buy stamps that day. We have also been repeatedly warned by the media to expect delays in mail deliveries.
In The Middle of a Pandemic, Why Require Everyone To Work On Site?
Another odd thing about the solicitation and about the county’s policies in general is the requirement that people work on site, not remotely.
At the last Supervisors’ meeting Karen Hagen, the County District Attorney, requested approval to allow her staff, at her discretion, to work remotely. She pointed out that there is the risk that if a staff person tested positive for COVID-19 her staff could end up in quarantine unable to deal with arrests of criminals.
The Board ended up approving Ms. Hagen’s request, but when Supervisor Gaston tried to expand the option to other departments, she ran into push back. For those of us who have observed the county for some time, the response was Kafkian. The usual suspects complained that such an action was precipitous without the benefit of carefully crafted policies.
I find this particularly odd because the county already dealt with employees working remotely early on in the pandemic when the Governor required that municipalities limit on site personnel by 50%. This was what precipitated the notorious county COVID bonuses for those who would be required to work on site. Those who follow this blog will remember how these same people routinely violated rules, regulations, and procedures during this period.
Requiring that tracers work on site seems especially bizarre. If they are working in the same space, and one of them tests positive for the virus, the entire team might have to be quarantined.
There is also the obvious question as to why after all of this time, there is no policy to allow remote work. After all, the city of Saratoga Springs successfully addressed the need for remote work months ago.
A Violation of Labor Law?
The job notice describes the contact tracer jobs as contractual and warns that:
“These are “Contract” positions at $25/Hour and do not provide any additional benefits, ie: healthcare, paid time off.”
In addition it states:
“Saratoga County’s Contact Tracing program operates seven (7) days a week between the hours of 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM. Weekend and evening hours may be required depending on established schedule and the needs of the County. [their emphasis].
This limited information raises a number of concerns. Labor law discourages “contract” employment because it can be abused as a way to circumvent the paying of benefits like the employer share for social security and Medicare.
An independent contractor is your status if:
- You supply your own materials or equipment.
- The employer does not give you all the things you need to do the job.
- If you can be let go from a project at the discretion of the employer.
- If you can choose to go to work or not without the worry of being fired as an employee.
- If you control how many hours you work each week. [my emphasis]
So on its face it appears that given what the county is requiring, these positions do not meet the definition of a contract worker.
There is also the problem of attracting employees under these terms. If the contract employee must pay their own contribution for social security and Medicare and the amount the employer normally pays it will significantly reduce their pay. Just as problematic will be their need to set up the administrative requirements to withhold some of their income for taxes along with contributing to their social security and Medicare.
Could it Be That The County Leadership Doesn’t Believe There Is A Crisis?
So what I think happened was that one of the early executive orders issued by Governor Cuomo required counties (and other municipalities) to hire contract tracers. The county approved the hiring of fifty tracers in May, but the leadership of the county didn’t really believe in the threat of the pandemic. They went through the motions of approving tracers simply to comply with the executive order. It was only many months later, after WNYT (channel 13) did a story on the gross failure of the county to carry out tracing , that they finally responded to the issue of actually hiring the number of tracers they had approved months before.
Of course there is also the possibility that they simply created the positions and were so incompetent that they were unable to effectively hire people.
One can only hope that in January the Supervisors elect a chair who will clean house at the county and hire people who are competent to serve us.