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Some City Workers Uneasy With New Role On Front Lines of Coronavirus Crisis

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(Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

Earlier this week, Mayor Garcetti announced the city would open 42 new homeless shelters at recreation centers around the city to slow the spread of coronavirus. Thirteen of them opened Friday.

To staff those centers, the mayor is invoking a rarely used provision of California law: the Disaster Service Worker (DSW) Program. The law has never been put in practice by Los Angeles leaders before, according to a city report.

Now, city workers who spoke to LAist say they’re uneasy about what they may be asked to do in response to the threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

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“It’s definitely the right thing to do,” said one city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their job. “But it’s also really scary to think of what we’re gonna be exposed to.”

All public employees in the state sign an agreement when they’re hired to be “Disaster Service Workers” who can be called on to support relief efforts in the city after a fire, earthquake, or similar crisis. Anyone assigned under the law must be working within their scope of training and abilities -- so non-medical personnel would not be asked to provide medical treatment, for example.

The city worker said they remember agreeing to be reassigned in case of emergency when they were hired, but at the time, the possibility seemed far-off.

“It’s the fine print -- you think, ‘oh yeah, that’s never going to happen.’” they said.

Now the coronavirus crisis feels very close to home: “It’s hard. But it’s also the job that I agreed to take, and a job that provides me very good benefits.”

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“I hope that people in the city can appreciate what this means to those of us that have to come to the front lines,” the worker said.

In an audit released last year, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin criticized the city for not providing refresher trainings to public employees about their obligations under the DSW program. Galperin recommended regular drills to keep city employees prepared in case they were called in for duty.

More than 400 city staff will be needed to run the new rec center shelters -- many will be temporarily assigned from the Parks Department and receive special training.

LAist reached out to the city's Personnel Department for more information about re-deploying city workers under the DSW program. We did not hear back in time for publication.