An employee of Workforce West Virginia, the state agency churning through an unprecedented number of unemployment claims, is quarantining with a suspected case of the coronavirus.
But state officials said social distancing measures already put in place mean other employees will be able to carry on with the time-sensitive work of processing a historic number of claims.
Gov. Jim Justice said the employee is self-quarantining.
“The person is isolating at home. The call center has not been impacted by this situation,” he said during a news conference today.
Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer later described the case as a “potential positive” and agreed that self-isolation was the treatment approach.
“I think the good news is because of what was being done, it limited the exposure to one individual,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer later elaborated that more precautions are being taken — starting today — at Workforce West Virginia, including taking temperatures, as well as some screening questions.
Workforce West Virginia has been inundated with initial unemployment claims — 90,000 new claims by the end of March — as social distancing measures have resulted in the closures of businesses and tens of thousands of lost jobs.
Attempts at new claims have sometimes been delayed by the overwhelming numbers.
“We were not processing or answering the phone as prudently with all of our unemployment claims that are coming in. Our people are doing great work; they’re overcome by the number of claims,” Justice said.
Justice has directed some members of the National Guard to assist with processing.
“I am happy to report right now that we, at Workforce West Virginia, are moving toward the equivalency of having three call centers — and by that we’re spread out; we’re not going to cluster together,” he said.
“But now we have the operating ability of going 24-7.”
Asked later in today’s news conference to describe the social distancing measures at Workforce West Virginia, the governor and other state officials said they are adequate.
“They already were practicing the appropriate social distancing,” Hoyer said, adding that led to the decision to isolate just the one employee.
“There is also separation by floors, and part of the plan that the governor has directed the National Guard and other agencies help with both the call center and the processing is a distributed system across the state.”
Hoyer concluded, “The good news is, because of what was being done, it limited the exposure with the one individual.”
State Health Officer Cathy Slemp agreed.
“My understanding is they were doing a great job. The call center had really taken seriously this issue,” she said.
“So they had spaced their employees; they had taken lots of good precautions to protect them. And that was a real benefit in the investigation because it was clear that the work they had done had limited any kind of exposures in the work setting.”
Democratic members of the House of Delegates, including Minority Leader Tim Miley, sent a letter last week to Justice urging some changes to Workforce West Virginia, including the ability of employees to work remotely.
The delegates also proposed bonus pay as an incentive to add personnel to Workforce West Virginia.
The letter was not made public when it was first sent to the governor but was provided today upon request.
Today, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he isn’t sure the steps so far have been enough to make employees confident in their work environment or to believe the pay is attractive under current conditions.
Pushkin noted that the district he represents — geographically — includes the Capitol complex and its workers, so he frequently hears from state employees.
“They feel they could do this job just as well remotely,” Pushkin said today.
“We need more people doing this job. We’re going to have to allow them the safety of doing this work remotely. It is understandable there would be a backlog, but the only solution is more people processing claims.
“And the only way to attract more people is to allow them a safe work environment — and right now that’s to work from home.”