Atlanta employees confused, angry about work locations during pandemic

City of Atlanta employees have complained that they are receiving contradictory messages about whether they must report to City Hall, or if they should work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

One employee in planning said workers were mandated to come into the office because the department wasn’t set up for teleworking.

“It’s a deserted ghost town and we are the only ones here,” said the employee, who asked not to be name out fear of being fired. “We are just all scared to death to be here.”

A city spokesman said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms “has made it abundantly clear that the City of Atlanta has implemented its teleworking policy.”

“We have taken significant measures to ensure city operations continue without disruption while working to protect the health of our employees,” the spokesman said. “To the extent that there are employees within City Hall, every precaution is being taken to ensure that they are able to exercise appropriate social distancing.”

The employee said planning department supervisors have mandated that employees must report to City Hall, and those with concerns about being exposed have to take sick leave or vacation time to stay outside of the office.

On Friday, the city's Human Resources Department issued a citywide memo saying that effective immediately all non-essential employees were to work from home and essential employees should report to work as usual.

The memo did not identify what workers the city considered essential.

“No one knows what criteria the city is using,” said Gina Pagnotta-Murphy, president of the Professional Association of City Employees of Atlanta.

Pagnotta-Murphy said she fields a dozen calls a day from employees complaining, and that the Public Works Department issued a memo Wednesday defining all employees as essential.

Despite the memo, Pagnotta-Murphy said, some public works employees were still performing their jobs from home. The department oversees trash collection, some infrastructure projects and transportation permits, among other city services.

Pagnotta-Murphy said she has requested that the city give premium hazard pay — double the normal pay rate — to employees who must report to work.

“We are a risk to our families,” she said.

Some contradictory messages about the city’s internal response to the pandemic have come from the highest levels.

On Sunday afternoon, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sent out a robo call warning residents about the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus. She said the city had implemented its teleworking policy and that City Hall would be closed to the public for the next two weeks — but that fire, police, water and trash services would continue as normal.

“While we are not panicked in Atlanta,” Bottoms said, “we do strongly emphasize the need to take precaution and or preparedness.”

A couple hours later, Chief Procurement Officer David L. Wilson II said he had checked with human resources and that the city hadn't sent a robo call, according to an email obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“If you have received this call, disregard,” Wilson wrote to his employees.

He then identified roughly 10 senior procurement managers, himself included, as essential employees and told them to report to work Monday morning for a leadership meeting. He told other employees they could participate over the phone.

Wilson did not explain why the managers needed to come into the office.