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State Government Workers Describe Unsafe Working Conditions During Pandemic

Rachel Baye


The state government employees who process unemployment insurance claims and work in state prisons, juvenile services facilities, hospitals and universities say they lack the resources necessary to do their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. 


The workers spoke Tuesday at a virtual meeting of the state House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees.


Department of Juvenile Services workers were barred from wearing masks — even ones they brought from home — until they had a confirmed case of COVID-19, DJS transportation officer Denise Henderson told lawmakers.


She said even after there was evidence of the virus in the Juvenile Services system, they lacked sufficient cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, or PPE.


“As an essential employee, you have to decide, do I go to work and risk infection and support my co-workers, or do I stay home and keep my family and myself safe?” Henderson said.


She also said the department is not doing contact tracing to determine who might have been infected. 


If an employee works in the same building as someone confirmed to have the virus, “you will find out by your co-workers having conversations by the water cooler,” Henderson said. “I found out by reading a newspaper article that the building I report to everyday had new COVID cases.”


Henderson and the other state employees who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting have leadership roles in the state or local branches of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. 


A union spokesman told WYPR after the meeting that DJS employees are now allowed to wear masks they bring from home. However, he said they still have shortages of cleaning supplies and PPE.


All of the state workers who testified echoed the complaints about a lack of PPE.


“We were instructed to start using and reusing our disposable surgical masks on April 1,” said Donna Kilmore, a social worker at Spring Grove Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital in Catonsville.


Kilmore said the hospital doesn’t have enough protective gowns, masks and disinfectant wipes. And she said social distancing is impossible, with four patients in a single room.


“Staff COVID testing was not available to all until June 3, and there doesn't seem to be any plans to continue to offer routine testing to staff despite the ongoing risk,” she said.


Workers at two state departments said employees were told to telework but were not given laptops.


“I just received my laptop on June 1, and I've been teleworking since March 18,” said Cherrish Vick, a caseworker in the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services.


Department of Labor employee Sean Santmyire said the staff processing unemployment claims also lacked laptops, so they kept working in the office, without PPE, even after Gov. Larry Hogan told state employees to telework. 


A spokeswoman for the department told WYPR that the department distributed laptops to unemployment claims workers beginning in April, and all claims workers now have the ability to work remotely.


The state agency leadership, who spoke earlier at the meeting, said they have sufficient PPE. However, they appeared to disagree with the workers’ assessments of who needs it.


“We do really sort of direct our most protective gear to our staff who are working in our medical units, as well as the staff who may have direct contact with young people who have either been COVID positive or possibly been exposed to the virus,” said Betsy Fox Tolentino, assistant secretary of strategic initiatives at the Department of Juvenile Services.


The Department of Health was short on PPE even as recently as 30 days ago, said Deputy Secretary of Operations Gregg Todd, but that is no longer the case.


“We have gotten to the point where, in fact, the local health departments have asked us to not send so much at a time because they were having a hard time stockpiling what we were sending them,” Todd said.


Lawmakers said they were angry after getting different pictures from the employees and management. A few said they felt like they had been lied to.


“We obviously are not getting direct information that we should be getting,” said Sen. Pam Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. “It's just unbelievable to me that our employees were left unprotected.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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