SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Some 3,000 San Francisco city employees are getting re-assigned to completely different jobs to help fill needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s part of the largest disaster re-deployment in the city’s history.

As branch manager of the Noe Valley Public Library, Denise Sanderson usually moves books.

“I’m not usually putting potatoes in a bag in my normal job,” she chuckled.

She’s one of more than 100 library staff who’s re-assigned to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank to help deliver food to 12,000 senior citizens a week who are sheltered at home.

“There’s definitely a need for food delivery and we’re thrilled we can help,” Sanderson said.

Other library staff are shifted to such jobs as monitoring homeless hotels, and doing COVID-19 contact tracing at UCSF.

These are just a few examples of how city employees are re-assigned as “Disaster Service Workers.” In a crisis, San Francisco can shift its workers to meet more urgent needs.

Kai Chin works at the SF Public Utilities Commission’s Water Quality Division.

“When we sign up as an employee with the city, it’s made quite clear,” he said.

So now, Chin draws on his chemistry background to make much-needed hand sanitizer at the SF Public Utilties Commission’s Water Quality Division.

A far cry from his desk job in software support.

“It was totally unplanned but it made sense to do and it’s something that helped a lot of people,” Chin said.

The hand sanitizer goes to field crews who are testing water quality from the Sierra Foothills to Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

“It’s not normal business. And so you’re having to make up some of the stuff as you go along,” explained Water Quality Division Director Andrew DeGraca.

Other PUC employees have added manifolds to supply drinking water from six Tenderloin fire hydrants.

At the SFPUC, hundreds of its 2,400 employees who can’t work from home or do online training have been temporarily re-assigned to work with emergency operations, monitor homeless hotels and deliver meals to those sheltered-in-place.

“I’ve been here more than 30 years. I’ve never seen this before. I don’t think anybody has a playbook on this,” said SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly.

City leaders said two other recent re-deployments were during the 2019 Kinkade fire in Sonoma County and the 2013 Rim Fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

Kelly himself was an engineer who helped design Kezar Stadium when he was re-assigned to inspect buildings in the Marina District after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“A lot of folks were fearful that their homes would collapse,” Kelly said.

Then, as now, hundreds of employees who are re-deployed each day remain resilient.

“I’m proud of all our staff, their willingness and ability to step up during this emergency to do all the things that need to be done,” said DeGraca.

And for some, the re-assignment can produce new habits once they return to their regular jobs.

For example, Sanderson said working at the food bank could begin a new volunteer chapter in her life.

“Yeah, I can see coming back,” Sanderson smiled.

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