Changes to county buildings: Physical changes are ongoing; attention and care are needed to ensure cleaning and disinfecting, and supply availability

One of our audit goals was to determine what the county has done to ensure the continuity of vital services without unnecessarily increasing health risks, due to possible COVID-19 transmission. To help meet this goal, we audited how the county ensured the safety of employees and clients at county buildings. The Facilities and Property Management (FPM) Division of the Department of County Assets has the primary role in managing county facilities. FPM management generally works on behalf of county departments when it comes to implementing physical changes to workspace configurations.

As we spoke with FPM management on this audit, we learned that they generally see themselves as consultants, working to implement requested workspace configurations on behalf of county departments, and often working closely with the county’s social distancing officer in Risk Management to understand the proper implementations.

FPM’s roles include maintaining the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) and plumbing systems in county buildings. The maintenance of these systems is particularly important during the pandemic, as maintenance and modifications help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and other pathogens. FPM also makes building configuration changes, which allow for appropriate physical distancing. These roles are critical now, and will remain so throughout the pandemic.

Did the county identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work? Is there a written document?

After the pandemic began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance to businesses and employers about how to respond to the pandemic from a health and safety perspective. This guidance included strategies and recommendations to help employers provide a safe environment for employees and clients.

One of the principal pieces of planning recommended in the CDC guidance is to identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work. This identification is aimed at preventing and reducing transmission of COVID-19 among employees.  The guidance recommends to “[c]onduct a thorough hazard assessment to determine if workplace hazards are present, or are likely to be present, and determine what type of controls or PPE are needed for specific job duties.” It is important to note that such a hazard risk assessment for COVID-19 would take into consideration the likelihood and magnitude of virus spread for specific job duties in a location or building.

Based on our interviews with county leadership and management in the Department of County Assets, the county did not conduct a formal hazard assessment. A formal hazard risk assessment would identify the types of controls or personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary for each job type, and would be specific with regard to county locations. Management did, through its own process, address some of the identified needs that would be identified in a hazard risk assessment. County leadership worked with departments to ascertain the viability of in-person work, taking into consideration safety risks. And over time, the county has made changes to work environments and required masks to protect employees.

In early November 2020, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) adopted Oregon Administrative Order 3-2020, which takes effect on November 16, 2020, and requires that employers conduct a COVID-19 exposure risk assessment.

During the time of our audit, did the county follow CDC/OSHA guidance for inspecting/modifying heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems?

The CDC’s guidance points to the need to modify ventilation systems in buildings to help clean indoor air as much as possible, which is believed to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19. The CDC’s guidance, as well as other studies, have indicated that three of the primary modifications building managers can make are to increase filtration, increase ventilation rates, and to increase ventilation and circulation from outside air.

However, for many county buildings, higher filtration cannot be accomplished with the higher ventilation rate. The finer filters do not allow air to flow through as easily, cutting down the ventilation rate.

In March, FPM worked with the Health Department and determined the best solution was to increase outdoor air intake, while largely leaving filtration and ventilation rates as is. This was generally effective during the summer when buildings could be maintained relatively comfortably, while bringing in more outside air.

When there is poor air quality, it is difficult to safely bring in outside air. During the summer, our area experienced significantly poor air quality as a result of fires around the state. And in certain locations, air quality was affected by other factors. Law enforcement’s use of tear gas during the downtown protests necessitated closing dampers at the Multnomah County Detention Center, which is where Multnomah County’s booking and maximum security jail are located. When law enforcement started to use tear gas near the Multnomah County Detention Center, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) had to call a technician to close the dampers. Because this needed to be done manually and it was often during the middle of the night, the dampers could not be closed quickly. Eventually, FPM technicians working on behalf of MCSO programmed the dampers to close at night as a preventative measure.

As the temperature cools in fall or winter weather, again the dampers need to be closed, but for a different reason: many county HVAC systems cannot efficiently warm outside air.

When there is poor air quality, or the outside air is too cold, it is difficult to safely or efficiently bring in outside air. Such situations necessitate relying on the filtration of indoor air to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. A higher level of filtration reduces airflow, and requires more frequent changing of filters, which are drawbacks. But some county buildings can achieve higher filtration, and FPM is beginning the process of upgrading filters in some buildings.

In November, FPM received approval to use some CARES Act funding to install higher level, MERV-13 filters in 13 buildings and air scrubbers in up to 25 county buildings. This will improve indoor air quality during times (like winter, and during periods of poor air quality) when it is inefficient or unsafe to bring in more outside air.

In our discussions with FPM management, we learned that the volume of work that needed to be completed was straining capacity for trades workers and property managers. Prior to adding substantial in-person capacity at county locations, we recommend that FPM ensure that necessary building modifications and upgrades, including the installation of partitions, and upgrades to HVAC systems have been completed.

During the time of our audit, did the county follow CDC/OSHA guidance in terms of ensuring safe water systems?

The temporary shutdown of buildings can create hazards for returning occupants. According to the CDC, hazards include lead and copper contamination from corroded pipes, and mold and Legionnaires disease from standing or stagnant water.

According to CDC guidance, when buildings go unused or are relatively unoccupied, the building’s water systems should be flushed on a regular basis, including all fixtures, and monitoring should take place to look for stagnant water or mold.

FPM followed CDC and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) guidance for flushing the water systems and monitoring for stagnant water and mold. Beginning in the middle of May, FPM began flushing the water systems in empty buildings, with a recurring schedule set up in an automatic system. The water systems were flushed every 2-3 weeks.

The guidance FPM followed included ensuring that all stagnant water was removed from humidifiers, and checking for leaks and mold. According to FPM management, all county buildings now have enough occupants that water systems do not need to be regularly flushed. Though FPM is less concerned about bacterial growth in colder weather, as additional buildings reopen, FPM plans to flush the water systems as part of the ramp up process. As of this writing, Library operations have been paused due to a COVID-19 surge, and FPM may need to flush those water systems as the buildings reopen.

During the time of our audit, was the county following CDC guidance to provide employees and visitors with supplies for cleaning hands and covering coughs?

Face coverings

The county developed a face covering policy in alignment with CDC, Oregon OSHA, and OHA. The face covering policy includes the directive that the county will provide face coverings or masks to employees and will make face coverings or masks available to all visitors. The policy does not specify who will provide the face coverings to employees or make them available to visitors. Property managers in FPM are responsible for the physical aspect of county buildings, but within each building there may be multiple programs, overseen by program managers. On the first floor of the Multnomah Building, for instance, are multiple programs, including the Division of Assessment, Recording, and Taxation (DART), Procurement, and the Office of Community Involvement.

In discussions with property managers, we found that program managers, rather than property managers, are responsible for providing masks to employees and making masks available to visitors. While we don’t know the challenges each program may have had in obtaining masks, we do know from our discussions with county employees that masks were difficult to acquire early in the pandemic, and that the supply has since become stable.

As discussed in other sections of this report, we looked at mask supply in some departments. Since we were not able to verify mask supply and mask wearing compliance at all county locations due to COVID-19, we asked employees about these issues in our employee survey. In fall 2020, we sent the survey to all county employees to provide them with an opportunity to communicate their experiences during the pandemic.

It is county policy to offer all employees a supply of face masks. Of employees who responded to our question about whether they had been offered a face covering or mask, 80% replied that they had been offered a face covering or supply of masks. When considering only employees that were working primarily at a county location or in the field (not primarily teleworking), 85% reported being offered a face covering or supply of masks. 

It is county policy to make masks available to service users or community members. Of employees, not working primarily from home, who responded to our question about masks made available for service users or community members, 71% agreed or strongly agreed that they had enough masks to provide. Twenty-one percent of respondents indicated they didn’t have enough masks to provide to service users or community members.

Cleaning hands

FPM contracts with two different janitorial service providers that maintain free-standing sanitizer dispensers in building common areas.  We heard from the janitorial service providers that although they sometimes needed to substitute products early on, they were able to keep sanitizer available in the common areas throughout the pandemic. 

In our survey of county employees, 64% of respondents said that the county had added hand sanitizing stations in their work area. Eighteen percent of respondents indicated that stations had not been added, but needed to be.

We recommend for each department leader to communicate with employees about how they can acquire a supply of masks. We recommend that department leaders work with their program managers to verify that all locations have a sufficient supply of masks for visitors.

What protocols were in place (with county contractors) to follow CDC guidance regarding performing routine cleaning and disinfection?

CDC guidance calls for businesses to make a plan for cleaning and disinfecting during the COVID-19 era. The guidance for making a plan states: “Evaluate your workplace, school, home, or business to determine what kinds of surfaces and materials make up that area. Most surfaces and objects will just need normal routine cleaning. Frequently touched surfaces and objects like light switches and doorknobs will need to be cleaned and then disinfected to further reduce the risk of germs on surfaces and objects.”

The county works with outsider contractors to clean and disinfect county buildings. There are two primary contractors: ABM and Relay Resources. Buildings where the county leases space, but does not own the building, use janitorial services not under contract with the county.

Rather than making a cleaning and disinfecting plan and adding these documents to contracts with janitorial providers, the county deferred to its janitorial contractors. FPM management told us these contractors adapted their materials and protocols to address COVID-19 in March. But it does not appear that management verified the procedures to be in accordance with CDC guidance.

We reviewed the enhanced procedures, and they indicate the providers are using COVID-19 specific cleaning products, adjusting cleaning procedures, and focusing more attention on high-touch services like light switches and door knobs. However, we heard numerous concerns about the quality and frequency of cleaning in some buildings. It is worth noting that not all locations receive the same level of cleaning and disinfecting. As mentioned above, some facilities are leased, and the county does not oversee the janitorial contractors. In county-owned facilities, some, but not all, have a day porter. Day porters clean throughout the day, which provides an extra level of cleaning over the standard, five days a week, nightly regimen.

In our survey, we asked if employees were confident that the level of cleaning in their unit was sufficient to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. About one third (34%) of respondents to this question were not confident that the level of cleaning in their work unit was sufficient to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

While the janitorial contractors clean common areas, there is other cleaning that must be maintained by county staff, including individual workspaces. The CDC recommends regular cleaning in these areas and that shared items, like staplers, pens, etc. be removed and items like coffee makers stored.  The county posted cleaning and disinfecting instructions on its website, and included additional information in the Safe Spaces document that is intended as COVID-19 guidance for county employees.

We recommend that FPM work with its janitorial contractors to ensure that each location has sufficient staffing capacity to ensure the enhanced cleaning recommended by the CDC.

We are told that the county is currently in the process of adding COVID-19 specific cleaning and disinfecting requirements into its contracts with janitorial providers. We recommend that FPM complete these contractual requirements prior to programs adding substantial in-person capacity at county locations.

What protocols were in place to ensure physical distancing?

CDC guidance calls for employers to establish protocols and procedures to help workers and customers maintain social distancing and physically separate employees from each other and from clients or customers, when possible. Recommended social distancing protocols include:

  • Teleworking
  • Modifying workspaces to increase physical space
  • Installing transparent shields or other physical barriers
  • Arranging reception or other communal seating area chairs by spacing or removing chairs
  • Using signs, tape, and other visual cues when physical barriers are not possible

Teleworking is covered in another section in this report, but this is an essential step in the guidance that the county implemented early in the pandemic.

Many county buildings remain unoccupied or only partially occupied, and few modifications were made during the time of our audit in those buildings. However, modifications have been made in a number of occupied or partially occupied county buildings. In the Gladys McCoy Health Department Headquarters downtown, and in the Division of Assessment, Recording and Taxation (DART) in the Multnomah Building, Plexiglas (or glass) barriers have been installed in areas where employees interact with customers, and spaces have been modified in those buildings to allow more space between employees and clients.

One-way traffic flow has been implemented at DART and in bathrooms at the McCoy building. In the jury room at the downtown courthouse, chairs were removed and those remaining were spaced apart. In areas that have cubicles, many employees are working from home as an alternative, and for those who are present, they are required to occupy cubicles that are spaced further apart. Chairs and tables in break rooms have been spaced out, where possible.

Photo of McCoy Building break room
McCoy Building break room. Source: Auditor's Office staff

The county convened a COVID-19 signage committee after the pandemic began. Initially, signage was purchased from outside vendors, as a way to accelerate getting COVID-19 signage into county buildings. Production was shifted to the county’s sign shop in the Department of County Assets, with a focus on producing signage that could be read in multiple languages. The signage now produced in the sign shop is produced with English as the primary language, and translations in six other languages. Here are two examples:

Source: Multnomah County Sign Shop

COVID-19 signage can be observed extensively inside the McCoy building and county courthouse, and inside and outside of the Multnomah Building, among other county locations.

As part of the employee survey, we asked employees to report their observations on physical distancing policies at county locations, and on the physical modifications made, such as barriers installed, signage, spacing between work areas, etc.

In response to our question about signage, 79% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the county had installed sufficient COVID-19 related signage at their workplace.

Seventy-five percent of respondents to our question asking if the county had reduced the number of people working at their worksite agreed or strongly agreed that their work unit had reduced the number of people onsite at the same time, such as through teleworking or staggered schedules.

In response to a question about whether workstations had been spaced six feet apart, 19% of respondents indicated this work still needed to be done. And in response to a question about whether sufficient barriers or shields had been installed, nearly a quarter (23%) of employees indicated that this work had not been done at their location, but needed to be done.

Survey statement: Please tell us what physical changes have been made to your worksite: Installed shields or partitions.

Source: Multnomah County Auditor’s county employee survey issued 2020.

How did the county determine which buildings to close to the public?

County leadership worked with departments to determine which programs were vital to the community, could operate safely with in-person services, and had the capacity to do so. Leadership developed a template to help guide the discussion about which programs could safely operate effectively. Ultimately, departments presented their plans to the Chair, who was the final authority.

How has the county secured buildings to prevent entry from the public or non-essential employees?

The Alarms unit in FPM secured all county buildings from public access, unless public access is needed. The need for public access is determined by county programs. Currently county buildings require key card access, and county programs determine access for employees. For many employees, building access has not changed – but an employee badge is now needed to enter.


  • Prior to adding in-person capacity at county locations, we recommend that FPM ensure that necessary building modifications, including the installation of partitions, and filter upgrades in HVAC systems have been completed.
  • Prior to adding in-person capacity at county locations, we recommend that FPM work with its janitorial contractors to ensure that each location has sufficient staffing capacity to ensure the enhanced cleaning recommended by the CDC.
  • We are told that the county is currently in the process of adding COVID-19 specific cleaning and disinfecting requirements into its contracts with janitorial providers. We recommend that FPM complete these contractual requirements prior to programs adding substantial in-person capacity at county locations.