When San Francisco on March 16 issued its sweeping COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, employees at the embattled Department of Building Inspection were soon sent home to do just that. 

But after being instructed that they were to be furloughed until April 7, they were  subsequently called back, en masse, and reported to work on March 23, as “essential” workers. 

Now the city, the department, its several hundred employees, and their unions are working, on the fly, to determine just who is “essential” and who really needs to show up in the office every day — meaning many workers could be soon sent back home again. 

Workers here feel like this is a questionable policy – one they say is unique in the Bay Area to San Francisco – that has been enacted poorly. 

“You know, I think this is a pretty bad idea,” said one longtime inspector. “There’s a shortage of personal protective equipment, even for healthcare workers. We don’t even have any. And they’re asking us to go into buildings.” 

“When I read the instructions, I thought [essential work] would be shelters or hospitals — not condos. It seems the mayor has interpreted it so all housing construction is ‘essential.’” 

That’s so, and building and construction interests have not sat this one out. On March 19, the Associated General Contractors of California wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting that “essential infrastructure” would include “all active construction job sites.” 

The city’s order is more proscriptive, applying only to housing construction. But if you have private construction, you need inspectors. There is, however, less construction, which prompts the question of just how many “essential” workers are needed. The Department of Building Inspection on Thursday reported 253 inspections in the previous five days — with 500 to 700 being a more normal number. 

What’s more, DBI reports that, increasingly, when its inspectors show up for an appointment, neither the owner nor the contractor bothers to make an appearance. 

The city, DBI and its workers’ unions are seeking ways for more employees to work from home. Plan-checkers, for instance, can review documents on computers remotely. Some work can be done via video, even some inspections. Other workers have been assigned to new city jobs altogether; at least eight Cantonese-speaking DBI employees are now doing translation at the city’s new Emergency Operation Center. 

But much DBI work must still be done in person. And much is needed: Housing inspectors, for instance, have been tasked with ensuring that Single-Room Occupancy hotel bathrooms are clean and provide soap for their COVID-19-vulnerable residents. 

“There is work to be done,” notes a veteran employee. Still, he thought the department could get by at this time with half its employees. A veteran inspector concurred: “We could work with a skeleton crew of folks, and not have people just coming in when they didn’t need to. I want to emphasize that, what DBI needs is a much smaller amount of people working doing the vital work of keeping people safe, while maintaining the safety and well-being of the inspectors and other staff. This isn’t being met. It makes little sense.” 

San Francisco Department of Building Inspection employees noted that other cities’ building departments did not dismiss then call back all their workers, deeming nearly every one of them “essential.” 

San Jose, for instance, has established extreme limits on inspections. A call to San Jose on Friday was answered by an automated recording stating the department was shuttered until April 7 and “only providing essential public services necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community.” 

The general public is still barred from DBI offices at 166o Mission. Workers here, however noted that the line to obtain permits stretched out the door and down Mission Street even during the March 16 speech by Mayor London Breed and Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax announcing the shelter-in-place order.

The directive calling San Francisco DBI employees back to work was penned by interim director Patrick O’Riordan — but multiple employees, even those sympathetic to O’Riordan, said they felt this was a City Hall decision.

O’Riordan — who is showing up to work and picking up his own phone — declined to answer questions. Sources within City Hall simply said “construction is an essential business and, presumably, Patrick read the health order.”

The decision, per others close to it, was crafted by O’Riordan, the City Attorney’s office, the Department of Human Resources, and the Office of the City Administrator.  

Union and DBI sources hoped that it could be determined by next week or so just who is truly “essential” and who can work from home. Long overdue shifts from paper-based systems to digital may now be expedited.

In the meantime, employees are confused why they were pulled back into work before these plans were finalized, only to possibly be sent home again. 

“It’s not that we don’t want to work. We want to stay safe and healthy,” said a DBI employee who is currently taking the bus to the office every day. 

“I don’t understand why they couldn’t have left everyone on furlough until they came up with a strategy.” 

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