We heard from 600 California state workers in a coronavirus survey. Here are their concerns

Laveta Brigham

Six hundred people responded to a survey The Sacramento Bee posted online two weeks ago asking California state workers how their departments and their unions are doing during the coronavirus. The results show how deeply the virus is affecting employees tasked with carrying out much of the state’s response to […]

Six hundred people responded to a survey The Sacramento Bee posted online two weeks ago asking California state workers how their departments and their unions are doing during the coronavirus.

The results show how deeply the virus is affecting employees tasked with carrying out much of the state’s response to a deadly pandemic. Some workers are stressed out and scared, frustrated and disappointed. Others are proud of department leaders who responded quickly and took their concerns seriously.

Whether they are processing unemployment insurance claims or working double shifts in state prisons and hospitals, workers want clear and regular communication, recognition and understanding from their bosses, and they want to be safe, according to the survey responses.

Workers who gave their departments a 10 out of 10 tended to say their departments were doing well in those areas, while those who rated their departments a 1 out of 10 often mentioned failings in the same areas.

Workers also are concerned about pay cuts, layoffs, child care and working conditions.

We’ve outlined some of the themes from the responses below. We’re still reviewing the surveys and will use them to help guide our reporting as the state continues to respond to the indefinite crisis caused by the virus.


Many respondents said a basic human need has gone unmet as they face unpredictable risks and challenges. They want recognition for the work they do, preferably from the governor.

During regular press conferences, Gov. Gavin Newsom has often praised health care workers and first responders while only rarely mentioning civil servants such as those processing unemployment insurance claims at the Employment Development Department.

“No one says ‘Thank you for coming in to help us,’” one respondent wrote. “I put my health and my family members’ health at risk just by going to work.”

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As the state moves toward returning 25% of office workers to their buildings, many are afraid of catching the virus.

Human Resources Department Director Eraina Ortega issued return-to-work guidance in early June saying offices should maintain a “minimum level of staffing” to comply with a section of California code that generally requires state offices to be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Some workers say their managers have been slow to notify them when a coworker tests positive. There is also uncertainty around what employees should do if they have been exposed to the virus and are awaiting test results. CalHR guidance says workers caring for a family member who has tested positive may be eligible for paid family leave.

Workers praised managers who shifted to telework early and those who have enforced mask-wearing and social distancing in offices. They criticized those who have required workers to report to offices multiple days per week, have failed to enforce the state’s standards and have been slow to clean offices after exposures or to notify workers about tests.

“As an essential employee I have been asked to attend work, never having any symptom screening done, and when there was a positive case in the area, notice took over six days to reach employees,” one worker said. “Morale is low with pay cuts, and never receiving any acknowledgment about being an essential worker.”

Department of Motor Vehicles employees, who most often rated their department poorly, expressed fears about working in offices visited by hundreds of people each day, without barriers between workers and the public. The department began installing plexiglass barriers in offices following a pilot program but doesn’t expect to finish the installations until November.

Some workers at prisons and state hospitals said they have had difficulty obtaining adequate protective gear.


Workers said they fear layoffs if the economy doesn’t improve.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature reduced state workers’ pay starting last month using a personal leave program, which resembles furloughs. The state cut workers base pay by 9.23% and is giving them two flexible days off in exchange. Workers’ contributions to their retirement health care are suspended, making the pay reductions smaller by a few percentage points depending on job classification.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, citing the long-term costs of the leave program, has recommended against extending it beyond two years. After two years, the office recommends the Legislature consider more permanent cost-saving solutions, including layoffs.

The first significant layoffs of state workers have begun at California state fairgrounds, where most events have been canceled. The layoff process typically takes six to nine months.

Working from home

Dozens of workers cited their department’s handling of telework in their assessments of whether their departments have done well or poorly. Departments that quickly moved the majority of workers to telework, such as CalPERS, received positive reviews, while those that took weeks to make the transition didn’t fare as well in the surveys.

Experiences of working from home have been mixed.

Some workers say their managers are supportive and have even acknowledged increased productivity (some say fewer meetings have contributed to those increases).

Others say their managers want workers to return to offices regardless of their performance at home.

One respondent who said they work in upper management wrote that some mid-level managers are being overly rigid in not allowing telework, adding that workers often have little recourse if a manager denies a telework request

Workers praised leaders for pledging to keep work-from-home into next year, while others criticized managers for continuing to rely on paper processes and failing to adopt digital tools such as electronic signatures on documents.

Newsom’s budget plans anticipate future savings from work-from-home. His May budget proposal had this to say on the subject:

“The state’s response has shown that teleworking on a large scale is possible, and the ability to optimize a telework approach can reduce the state’s carbon footprint and leased office space, while increasing the state’s digital presence for the benefit of both California’s employees and the people they serve.”

Some workers near retirement, and at greater risk from COVID-19, say they will retire rather than return to offices.


We also asked workers for feedback on their unions. The majority of respondents, like the majority of state workers, are represented by SEIU Local 1000, which represents a range of employees from administrative assistants to nurses and inspectors.

State scientists, engineers, psychiatric technicians and public safety workers also responded, along with a collection of employees in other groups.

Respondents who ranked their unions poorly said the unions didn’t fight hard enough against pay cuts. They said their unions haven’t done enough to get state departments to make offices and workspaces safe or to prevent mandatory contact tracing assignments. Some said their unions have been slow to respond to their requests for help.

“Wanted more fight on pay cuts. Want more communication,” one worker wrote.

Those who rated their unions highly were glad the unions negotiated for the personal leave program that gives workers days off instead of accepting the traditional furloughs that Newsom threatened to impose if unions didn’t negotiate.

“I felt they negotiated our pay cuts fairly well. I wasn’t happy with taking a pay cut of course, but I felt that the negotiations could have been worse. I am just glad I have job security during these unprecedented times.”

Some said their unions helped get them telework early, helped them navigate the Federal Family Coronavirus Relief Act, helped get safety measures in offices and have kept in touch with texts and emails.

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