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St. Louis County may advance sick days in response to coronavirus

The policy that will be addressed Tuesday would allow for 80 hours of sick leave to be advanced to employees who exhaust their previous limits, and are symptomatic or have loved ones who are impacted.

coronavirus-covid-19-nih3.jpg
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (Submitted / NIAID-RML)

The worldwide outbreak of the new coronavirus is causing the St. Louis County Board to take up the issue urgently at Tuesday's meeting in Duluth, where the board will consider advancing sick days to employees who run out of accrued sick time.

"At this point, the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus that causes it," the County Board letter under consideration said. "Stopping transmission (spread) of the virus through everyday practices is the best way to keep people healthy."

The County Board will take up the new policy when it meets 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. If approved, the new policy would not be invoked immediately, the county confirmed Monday.

The policy would advance up to 80 hours of sick leave to employees who are symptomatic or who have a family member with symptoms. Also, an employee may use the added leave if a family member's school or place of care has been closed due to the public health emergency, requiring the employee's presence to provide care to a family member.

The new coronavirus, COVID-19, is a respiratory illness with cold- and flu-like symptoms which has proven to be fatal for some people whose immune systems are previously compromised by things such as heart disease, pneumonia and diabetes. So far, Minnesota has registered two known cases and no known deaths. Worldwide, COVID-19 is causing countries to take measures to isolate infected communities and cancel highly populated gatherings and events.

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The policy originated in the county's human resources department, with a partial intent to set an example across the broader community.

"As we work to contain the spread of COVID-19 and protect our vulnerable populations, one of the key messages has been to 'stay home if you’re sick,'" Human Resources Director Jim Gottschald said. "As an employer, we want to model business practices that support employees and serve the larger community health interest."

Three days ago, known COVID-19 cases surpassed 100,000 worldwide. Through Monday afternoon, there have been 19 deaths and rising in the United States, where 35 states have reported cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

"If employees come to work with respiratory-like symptoms (because of no or low amounts of paid leave available), there is a potential for further spreading of the COVID-19 virus to the rest of the workforce and community," the County Board letter said.

Approximately 28% of the county's roughly 2,000 employees have less than two weeks of paid sick leave available to them, the county said. Even considering all forms of paid leave, including compensatory time, personal leave, vacation and sick leave, 12% of employees have less than two weeks available to them, the county said.

Because the new policy, Utilization of Paid Leave During a Public Health Emergency, was not generated in a committee of the whole meeting, it will first require board consent to address it, followed by a vote.

An employee must have exhausted their previous accruals, and only the county administrator — in this case, Kevin Gray — would have the authority to invoke the emergency measure.

"The advanced hours will automatically be reduced from the employee’s future accruals," the proposed policy says.

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The recommendation from the county's human resources department is that the County Board adopt the new policy.

This story was updated at 3:22 p.m. March 9, 2020, to include further comment from the county human resources department and update statistics of those afflicted with COVID-19. It was originally posted at 10 a.m. March 9, 2020.

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