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Outbreak At MVA Grows As Union Cites Unsafe Conditions

Maryland GovPics

The number of COVID-19 cases among employees of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration continues to grow, with more than a dozen workers out across multiple locations as of Thursday. However, the union that represents those workers says the agency is doing little to prevent the virus from continuing to spread. 


On Sunday, Oct. 18, Kim Henson, who works at the MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie, learned via social media that three of her coworkers had tested positive for COVID-19 and a fourth was waiting on test results. Three days later, Henson learned that she, too, had the virus. 


“I had the back pain. I had excruciating headaches. I’m asthmatic, so my breathing was a little labored. It's just been emotionally draining,” Henson described during a press conference Thursday hosted by the state branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, or AFSCME.


Henson said she is not surprised she caught the virus because the precautions the MVA has taken to prevent COVID-19 from spreading are insufficient. For example, Henson said employees can’t maintain the six-feet distances recommended by public health officials.


“They put these wooden barriers up,” Henson said. “But when I stand up, I'm still taller than the barrier that is supposed to be able to separate me from my coworker.”


When workers initially returned to working in-person in June, they were assigned alternating days, to allow them to maintain safe distances. But that’s no longer the case, and Henson said the office is crowded. 


“It's just overwhelming,” Henson said. “I don't even want to go back to work. I haven't been released to go back to work. But what about when I do go back? How do I know that I'm not going to get infected again?”


MVA spokeswoman Whitney Nichels said in an email that the agency has taken numerous measures to prevent outbreaks, including a “deep cleaning” after each confirmed positive test. All locations, including the headquarters in Glen Burnie, will also undergo a deep cleaning on Tuesday, while the branches are closed for Election Day.


Branches are operating at reduced capacity and by appointment only, Nichels said.


“MDOT MVA safety measures - including appointment requirements, plexiglass dividers, temperature screening, social distancing markers and mandatory face coverings - will stay in place until further notice,” Nichels wrote.


She said there are currently 13 employees who have COVID-19.


AFSCME leaders said Henson is one of at least 10 workers just at the Glen Burnie location who have contracted the virus, including three currently hospitalized and on ventilators. They said there have also been recent cases at the MVA locations in Largo and Hagerstown. 


But AFSCME Maryland President Patrick Moran said the union’s information is incomplete because the agency has not been telling the rank-and-file workers as employees get sick.


“The absolute and complete lack of transparency on this is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable,” Moran said. “Really, it's disheartening and frightening that our members are finding out that their coworkers … have tested positive on Facebook.”


He said some managers have warned union members that there will be punishment for speaking out about the outbreaks or about the conditions in their work environments.


Nichels, from the MVA, denied the union’s accusations. 


“Employees are not forbidden to speak out and we encourage them to raise issues,” she wrote.


She also said that beginning this past Monday, notifications about positive cases are posted at each branch in an area all employees can access, such as a break room.


But union leaders say the current safety measures are insufficient. They are seeking higher-quality cleanings, better air ventilation, and a return to rotating shifts so that only half of the staff is in each branch at a time.

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