The omicron surge is taking its toll on Fort Collins’ municipal workforce, especially those unable to work remotely amid the most intense wave of COVID-19 cases in the world. Larimer County to date.
In the first two weeks of January, about 10% of Fort Collins city workers reported testing positive for COVID-19, experiencing COVID-like symptoms and awaiting a test result, or being exposed to something one who had tested positive. That total included 158 employees from Jan. 10-16 and 72 employees from Jan. 2-8, said Fort Collins human resources director Karen Burke. By comparison, 32 city employees reported positivity, symptoms, or exposure to COVID-19 during the week of Nov. 7-13, before the omicron wave.
The city employs 2,223 people across all classifications, making it one of the largest employers in the community.
“This is definitely a spike for us,” said Burke, who added the city needed to get creative to avoid service disruptions. “We haven’t seen any service issues, but we’ve had to be very proactive in how we handle these essential services.”
She said some of the hardest-hit departments in Fort Collins were transportation, streets, police departments, utilities and operations departments. These are the departments where many employees have to do their work in person.
This wave is different from the delta wave in two important ways, Burke said.
“With delta, we didn’t see as many (positive cases), but when we saw positive cases, they were out longer and they were a lot sicker,” she said.
Fort Collins waste haulers are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases among employees, according to spokespersons for Republic Services (formerly Gallegos Sanitation) and Waste Management, who did not share exact numbers. Waste Management’s statement referred to some isolated service disruptions, and Republic is experiencing an active outbreak with five cases among staff, according to the Larimer County Health Department. (Fort Collins’ other primary carrier, Ram Waste Systems, did not return a call for information.)
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Fort Collins Utilities is dealing with an active outbreak of 18 cases among staff that has triggered the closure of the customer service counter until at least Jan. 28. An outbreak at Fort Collins Police Department, its third since the pandemic began, has had 10 positive cases.
Not to mention the spikes in cases among staff at schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other essential service providers throughout Larimer County. Much like alpha and delta before it, the ultra-contagious omicron variant is straining people who provide essential services in the community and can’t do that work remotely.
Surge taxed city services at times. A flurry of cases among Fort Collins snowplow drivers slowed the city’s response to snowfall in the first week of January. And this week, Fort Collins’ Mulberry Pool rolled out restricted daytime hours due to a staffing shortage brought on by COVID-19 and ongoing hiring and retention issues in the city’s recreation department.
“If we get a person with COVID, we don’t have the bench to substitute and call a sub,” Burke said. “So we needed to take a more proactive approach in cutting hours so we could keep staff healthy and make sure we could have some consistency for our community.”
In cases like the Mulberry Pool staff shortage, the increase exacerbates the protracted challenge of worker retention. Acting Director of Recreation Aaron Harris told the Coloradoan earlier this week that the city’s aquatics team has been “desperately trying to hire and train people for … key positions over the past six months, but there were not enough qualified candidates available for hire.”
The recreation department has faced staffing shortages for several years in reception positions, facilities, sports, water sports and childcare. These are many positions that faced furloughs in 2020, when many recreational facilities temporarily closed.
The issue is indicative of a larger trend: Fort Collins, like other employers, has not seen the full return of the workforce after pandemic-related shutdowns and a wave of quits and retirements anticipated. City government labor turnover was 10% in 2021, the same as 2020. Annual turnover was about 8% in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
“We’ve seen more retirements during the pandemic, and people we didn’t expect to retire from — younger than the traditional retirement age traditionally,” Burke said. “We saw some people who chose not to work and said, ‘I’m going to change my life. … For a while there was an additional stimulus with unemployment. And I think people prioritize their safety.”
The city has tried to reduce the impacts of the pandemic on services by isolating teams of employees when possible to avoid the larger ripple effects of a positive test or exposure, Burke said.
Employees are required to report symptoms daily and those who test positive must self-isolate for at least five days. They can return to work after that if their symptoms improve, they don’t have a fever without fever medication and are following mask-wearing and social distancing policies. The city adheres to the Health Department’s policy for quarantining people who have been exposed to COVID-19.
All city employees have access to sick days in addition to the state-provided 80 hours of emergency sick leave for COVID-19 symptoms, exposure, and related issues. The city has also created a donation bank for employees to donate unused sick time, Burke said. Risk management staff are considering providing employees with higher quality masks, such as N95s or KN95s, which provide better protection against infections compared to cloth and surgical masks.
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Municipal employees are not required to be vaccinated.
City leaders hope cases will peak next week in Larimer County and then begin to decline, Burke said. Modeling of Colorado School of Public Health project cases in Colorado will peak the week of January 24.
Larimer County’s case rate has shown signs of plateauing since Jan. 10, with the 7-day case rate consistently hovering between 1,400 and 1,500 positive tests per 100,000 people. This means around 1.5 in 100 people tested positive over a 7 day period.
However, it has taken longer to get test results since the arrival of the omicron push due to the increased demand for testing. As of January 13, about 54% of tests had a turnaround time of four days or longer, and an additional 28% took three days. The latency, along with the increased use of rapid home tests, can make it difficult to discern what is happening with the day-to-day rate of cases.
If cases have plateaued, they have reached the highest level Larimer County has seen since the pandemic began. The case rate is more than six times higher now than it was in mid-December.
The test positivity rate stood at 28.5% on Friday, down from a high of 33% on January 15, but remains an indicator that more people in the community are infected than the results alone suggest. tests.
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It is unclear how close we are to reaching endemic status, where COVID-19 cases reach a more stable level that does not cause community disruptions. That unfortunate reality has created a sense of fatigue among city staff that most people can probably relate to, Burke said.
“I think there is a fatigue because the pandemic has lasted so long and our work is not the same,” she said.
The city is trying to support staff by doing additional check-ins with supervisors and bringing in guest speakers to talk about workload management and resilience. City leaders issued a one-time gratitude payment to staff, with amounts ranging from $100 to $1,500 after taxes. The amount depended on whether the employee was hourly or salaried and the amount of work they performed between spring 2020 and spring 2021.
City employees will also be eligible for raises again in 2022 after pandemic-related uncertainty led to a wage freeze in 2021.
The city is testing a hybrid return-to-work approach that gives employees the option of working in-person or remotely, if possible for their position. The ongoing “Future of Work” project assesses return to work with equity in mind, understanding that return to work on site will not be the same for everyone.
Jacy Marmaduke covers government liability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support his work and that of other Colorado journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.