Marin County employees pivot to disaster workforce during pandemic

Everyone has had to adapt during the pandemic and for some it's meant shifting to different jobs. Marin County has a special workforce, made up of public employees pivoting to new duties. 

"Everything is completely different from my normal day job," said Bonnie Nguyen, suited up in personal protective equipment. 

That wouldn't have been necessary at her usual post at the Civic Center in San Rafael. 

"I work in the mail room, normally," said Nguyen.

Now, she works alongside public health nurses at a COVID19 test site, processing specimens, not mail. 

It was a switch she didn't see coming. 

"My manager asked if I was available and I said yeah, and came on over the next day,"  said Nguyen.

Marin, like other counties, saw demands on the Public Health

Department skyrocket with the onset of the coronavirus. 

"Employees who are ready to jump in can declare they're willing and able," said Marin County Public Information Officer Laine Hendricks. 

In any declared State of Emergency, all government employees are technically considered Disaster Service Workers. 

Potentially they can be re-assigned from their every day roles into public service needs.

About 200 of Marin's 2000 county employees have stepped up to fill gaps, everything from driving people to test sites, delivering food, and assisting at one of the motels housing vulnerable homeless adults.    

"It gives you an opportunity to stretch and see what other areas you might be interested in and use skill sets that maybe you don't get to use every day in your normal job," said Hendricks. 

In central San Rafael, social worker LaToya Webb moves from motel room to motel room, asking guests the same questions.

"Are you having any shortness of breath, any coughing, and can you taste your food?" 

Webb normally works in an office, coordinating with case workers to provide services to homeless people. 

But now she is supervising three Marin County motels where vulnerable street residents have been moved in order to shelter and stay healthy. 

"In this pandemic, I am actually working directly with clients hands on, every single day, one on one," said Webb.

Growing a team and launching the motel initiative has been a rewarding challenge, and Webb's first foray into management.

"It's been an amazing experience being able to service my clients on a different level." 

And when the hotel project closes up shop ? 

"I will miss the set-up but I will still be doing some of the same great work with them," said Webb.

Extra hands have also been valuable at the Emergency Operations Center, located in the Sheriff's Department Headquarters. 

"It's been amazing to see all the other county employees come together and support each other as a team," said Sasha

Sanderson, who came from the County Counsel's office to work in the command center.

Sanderson organizes logistics: getting people and supplies where they need to be. 

It may not be as complex as her legal work, but as she says, "it's still long days and coordinating a lot of moving parts so it can be tricky." 

The temporary assignments may end up leading to new opportunities and goals. 

For Nguyen, the teamwork aspect has been appealing. 

"I know there are people from the D.A.'s office who are helping, people from park and recreation, libraries, and we've become like a family."

Rather than return to the mail room, Nguyen is thinking about resuming her education, with an eye toward public health. 

"I actually really like it."

The disaster service workers say the toughest part is not knowing how long any of it will last.

Previous emergencies - quake, fire, storm and outage- were easier to predict but the arc of the pandemic is still unfolding.