With COVID-19 caseloads waning and statewide mask requirements lifted, the City of Seattle and King County are bringing employees back to in-person work and preparing to lift mask mandates for the first time in two years.
City employees who have worked remotely for the last two years will begin the return to working in person on Wednesday, as announced by Mayor Bruce Harrell in February.
According to the Mayor’s Office, only about 35% of the city’s employees are still working remotely, with the majority already working in the field because of the nature of their jobs. And details of those returns will vary.
“The City’s largest departments, like utilities and public safety, have operational functions, and many staff have worked in person or on a hybrid schedule throughout the pandemic. Alternatively, many of the city’s smaller departments have been 100% remote, so they will be coming back on a hybrid schedule,” Communications Director Jamie Housen said Friday.
Housen said that although Monday is the return to office day, that doesn’t mean all employees will report in person that day.
“Additionally, under Alternate Work Arrangements (AWAs) employees can stagger their schedules. Employee AWAs were submitted last year based off specific department and individual team business needs,” he said.
But many employees are trepidatious about the return to work, especially as mask requirements lift, according to Karen Estevenin, executive director of PROTEC17, a professional union representing many of the city employees preparing to return to the office.
“People have certainly expressed that they’re feeling really sort of nervous and anxious and concerned and aren’t excited about this,” Estevenin said. “Some members feel like it could be put off, it could wait and there are questions that can be answered first.”
Estevenin says that the union resisted Harrell’s initial plan to lift mask requirements on Wednesday as employees return because of safety concerns, pushing the lift date into April. Still, some employees are hesitant to go back to public facing positions and shared workspaces.
“There’s still a lot of questions about how things will be enforced, especially in those areas,” Estevenin said.
“If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that these sorts of transitions are impactful and massive.” And while we all transitioned very, very quickly, when the pandemic hit, that doesn’t mean that we need to reciprocate that speed easing back into it.”
The city has made a number of improvements — like making masks available upon entry for employees, improving ventilation at “core” city facilities, increasing frequency of cleaning and disinfecting things like doorknobs and elevator buttons, and installing protective barriers at high-traffic public facing desks and counters — in addition to the alternative work agreements, Housen said.
Housen said the city plans to lift mask requirements for employees and members of the public inside government buildings on April 4 but will uphold a mandate set by former Mayor Jenny Durkan in October, which requires all city staff working in person to be vaccinated. That mandate resulted in the loss of 111 city employees who were out of compliance.
“Vaccines remain the best and foremost line of defense against further resurgence of the virus and its worst health outcomes,” he said, noting that the city will continue to monitor COVID caseloads, hospitalizations and cases within city departments.
In King County, 85% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated and about 93% have received at least one shot.
Housen says there “are no imminent plans” to lift the city’s civil emergency order from 2020, under which many pandemic protections and services are offered.
Meanwhile, the City Council continues to meet and allow public comment remotely, but is looking at when and how to return to in-person meetings.
“My office, in concert with other leaders from the Legislative Department, labor and city departments, are continuing to discuss the council’s return to office. We’re emphasizing safety, fairness, work-life balance, and operational effectiveness,” Council President Debora Juarez said Friday.
“These conversations are important, as are our negotiations with our labor partners in the Legislative Branch, and this has required additional time than originally estimated. We’re endeavoring to release a return-to-work plan in the near future.”
Similarly, King County began bringing remote workers back to the office at the beginning of the month.
About 5,000 King County employees began, slowly, returning to the office on March 1.
Like the city, some two-thirds of the county’s 15,000 employees — correctional officers, bus drivers, sheriff’s deputies, facilities maintenance — already had been working in person.
For the rest, returns to the office are being determined on a department-by-department basis, said Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson for County Executive Dow Constantine.
Most of the county’s departments will still be in a hybrid work situation, with 20% to 80% of the workforce working remotely.
Masks will be optional at most county workplaces, Gallagher said, now that the state’s indoor mask mandate has been removed. Masks will only be required in circumstances where they are required by federal mandate: public transportation, correctional facilities, health care settings and long-term care facilities.
King County courts will continue to require masks in courtrooms and in other public-facing settings but will be encouraged, but not required, in offices. The Metropolitan King County Council still has no scheduled date for a return to in-person legislative meetings.
The plan, a spokesperson said, is to get set up for hybrid meetings where council members meet in person but the public can comment remotely. In-person meetings will return sometime after the setup is complete in April and after “some testing.”