March 10, 2020

Inslee, state officials update employers on COVID-19 epidemic

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0
AWB's COVID-19 tele-conference on March 10 with Gov. Jay Inslee and other top state leaders offered up-to-date information to about 1,200 attendees.

Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the need to stay ahead of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak on a conference call Tuesday with more than 1,100 Washington employers.

Inslee reported 162 presumptive cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning, and 22 fatalities. While the governor acknowledged that he’s heard from some people -- including from friends – that it’s a relatively small number in a state of 7 million people, he said employers need to look at the outbreak differently.

"The problem is, is that this epidemic, the best modeling we can see, can double in numbers every five or eight days," Inslee said. "And if you do the math, this could be a very large number of people in the weeks to come if we do not act. So clearly this calls for good decision making, based on science, and looking forward, rather than just looking in the situation today, and that is what we're doing."

And he added, a part of the difficulty is that a vaccine is at least a year away.

In addition to Inslee, the teleconference included updates from state Secretary of Health John Wiesman; Major Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard; Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine; state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal; and Robert Ezelle, director of the state’s Emergency Management Division.

The full 60-minute call, including a question-and-answer session with employers, can be accessed above.

Wiesman, who leads the state's public health response, said he fully expects an increase in the number of cases.

"Our priority really is to do everything we can to slow down this epidemic that we have here," Wiesman said.

Part of the increase will come from increased testing. Those that test positive will be able to isolate themselves or seek healthcare if they need it.

Right now, models show as many as 1,000-2,000 people actually have the infection, he added.

He also stressed that for most people, this is a mild illness.

"We’re really most concerned for those who are 60 and older, and for folks who have chronic underlying health issues," Wiesman said.

Daugherty, the National Guard commander, said the state's military department has activated the state's Emergency Operations Center to its highest level, and is linked up with community, tribal and local emergency departments and health officials. The state has also activated the National Guard Joint Operations Center and will be standing by ready to respond to requests for help.

"I just want to remind everybody we're in this all together," Daugherty said.

Ezelle said the Emergency Operations Center has been activated since January in support of the Department of Health.

"We absolutely recognize the critical nature of our private sector partners in response and recovery from any kind of disaster, and we actively look forward to being in partnership with you as we work our way through this," Ezelle said.

A Joint Information Center has also been activated at Camp Murray, he said, charged with providing information to communities and governments at all levels. Within that information center, officials are setting up a private sector team that can serve as a resource for employers. Details will be announced soon.

Superintendent Reykdal addressed school closures in his remarks. He noted that local health authorities and the governor have the authority to forcibly close schools. 

"School closures, particularly elementary schools, it drives a lot of parents home and out of the workplace," Reykdal said. This impacts productivity, the business supply chain and the healthcare sector, he added.

He also said the Central Puget Sound area should be prepared for more school closures, beyond the two to five days it takes to clean facilities.

Commissioner Suzi LeVine of the Employment Security Department shared news about emergency rules related to unemployment insurance.

Unemployment insurance is a last resort, "But it is a great support system for our safety net," she said.

She also mentioned paid family and medical leave, workers compensation and shared work and standby programs as options. Certain fees related to these programs have been waived, and eligibility expanded. For example, workers will be able to receive unemployment benefits if an employer needs to shut down over the outbreak. Click here to read more.

Erica Dial of AWB's Grassroots Alliance asked the first question. Dial, CEO of the Maple Valley Black Diamond Chamber of Commerce, said most of her members are small businesses, and some have had events cancelled already.

"What will the state do to help those small business owners?" she asked the governor.

Inslee discussed new federal and state appropriations that have been allocated to help fight the outbreak.

"We're going to look at what we can do with the federal dollars that have been appropriated by the Congress, and make sure that we have federal Small Business Administration disaster loans, bridge loans available," he said.

Inslee also noted that the Washington Legislature acted quickly by passing a $100 million appropriation for a variety of uses.

"Those uses have yet to be specifically identified," Inslee said.

That money could involve some small business assistance, but he did note the need to prioritize much of it for medical, life and safety issues.

The "long and short of it is, we will look, can't guarantee it, and I understand the difficulty that the economy is going to…experience here, particularly small business people."

Inslee also said the state has created a business advisory group, and that he welcomes employer input.

"If you can suggest what your needs are, that will help us figure out the way to help you," Inslee said.

"The honest situation is, we are going to have major, major economic dislocation as a result of this epidemic, no matter what we do," Inslee said. "It's just a reality. And that's hard to recognize, but it is a real thing. And the single most important thing I can do for small business is to slow down this epidemic."

AWB Institute Board Chair Tim Schauer asked about school closures, noting the impact that has on the workforce and employers.

"There's more information that we have received in the last 48 hours indicating that children are transmitters in schools," Inslee said. Therefore, reducing their transmission rate could be accomplished by closing schools. However, any decision to do so would likely focus on the areas most impacted, and he said he's not contemplating a statewide closure at this time. He also said he's in close consultation with Reykdal and scientists about the issue.

Inslee also took a moment to thank employers who have responded to the crisis. Many employers are allowing staff to work from home, and companies like Amazon and Microsoft continue to pay their hourly support staff even as the need for their services has dropped, since so many workers are away from the company's campuses.

"We see a lot of businesses trying to ameliorate the cash flow problems of their employees and customers, and I just want to thank you for doing that, to be able to really pitch in," Inslee said.

For more information, please visit AWB's employer resource page, the governor's resource page for employers, and the Washington State Department of Health.