Union and workers reclassified as ‘essential’ claim that the PA Department of Human Services is endangering their safety - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 20, 2020 11:56 am

Union and workers reclassified as ‘essential’ claim that the PA Department of Human Services is endangering their safety

“In many cases, the protection of these workers appears to come second to that of the communities they serve,” says Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668.

Governor Tom Wolf.

(Photo by Flickr user Governor Tom Wolf, used under a Creative Commons license)

On Monday, about an hour after Governor Wolf announced the closing of offices for all non-essential state employees, his administration reclassified workers in county assistant offices as essential.

At the time of this report, those newly essential workers were required to report to their offices, even those who live in counties that had been previously closed/quarantined.

According to reports from those impacted, nobody is making hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes available to the workers in the county assistant offices, nor are they spacing out employee workstations or following any other CDC preventive guidelines.

"There are no resources to protect ourselves. Each employee is given only one Lysol wipe per day."
Quinn, a DHS employee

The workers’ union, SEIU Local 668 is disputing the reclassification and invoking the right to bargain. They are also asking their members to call the Governor’s office.

Generocity spoke with Quinn (name changed), a worker with PA Department of Human Services (DHS) who wished to remain anonymous. Quinn has been off work for several days, feeling under the weather. Quinn is using their vacation time to remain out of the office and may apply for retroactive FMLA.

Quinn is very worried about the conditions at their workplace.

“There are no resources to protect ourselves. Each employee is given only one Lysol wipe per day,” they said. “There are over 100 workers in my office; we sit in cubicles only two to three feet from each other. We have no gloves or masks. HR is not providing hand sanitizers or disinfectant wipes.”

“Colleagues are going in to work; our employer is ignoring our concern. Regular leave is the normal protocol there,” Quinn added.

Concerned county assistant office workers were given a public line to call with questions, but the line’s voicemail is full. The number sends the caller to Department of Health, which then sends the caller to OSHA.

“SEIU Local 668 members working to provide essential services are doing their best to save lives in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668. “For workers in places such as County Assistance Offices and Customer Service Centers, this is a new and daunting situation.”

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“For others, like social workers and counselors in correctional facilities and state hospitals, there is an added risk to their already difficult jobs,” Catanese added. “Outside of the Commonwealth, workers in youth and aging services are operating blindly, not knowing if they’re walking into a quarantined home or not. In many cases, the protection of these workers appears to come second to that of the communities they serve.”

"We want all Pennsylvanians to be safe and healthy, and that includes all members of SEIU Local 668."
Steve Catanese

According to Catanese, SEIU Local 668’s most difficult task now is ensuring that all of their members are given a safe environment in which to operate during this ongoing crisis.

“We are working around the clock, demanding employers come to the table to at least meet, if not exceed current CDC and OSHA standards,” he said. “We’re trying our best to work with employers to help them help our members, and in turn, help the general public. We want all Pennsylvanians to be safe and healthy, and that includes all members of SEIU Local 668.”

While DHS closed all county assistance offices (CAOs) statewide to the public effective Tuesday, March 17 in coordination with Wolf’s mitigation guidance regarding COVID-19, Quinn’s office of over 100 employees remains open.

Erin James, press secretary for the Department of Human Services, told Generocity yesterday that, “the Wolf Administration is doing everything it can to ensure continuity of benefits and application processing for new applications for benefits that come in during this period. This uncertain time is undoubtedly going to create difficult situations for people around Pennsylvania, and we need to continue to administer these vital programs for those who need it most.”

The decision to continue to operate county assistance offices but close them to the public, James said, “is necessary to ensure continuity of program operations so we may continue to process applications and maintain existing cases.”

"We cannot abandon the people who need or may need these programs when they are needed most."
Erin James

James recognized that the decision has prompted frustration and concern. “However, these job functions are essential and cannot be performed off-site with existing technological capacity,” she said.“DHS and the Department of General Services are following CDC recommendations for environmental cleaning and directing owners of leased buildings that we operate in to do the same.”

However, in the grievance SEIU Local 668 filed to Dave Goetz, chief of DHS’ Division of Labor Relations, the union alleges that “the Department of Human Services issued the directive without providing any of the necessary health and safety precautions necessary to prevent further spread of Covid-19, including, but not limited to provisions for social distancing in the offices, sanitizer, gloves, provisions to avoid public transportation, provisions for those with compromised immune systems or other at risk factors etc.”

“The actions of DHS have placed employees at serious risk for the contraction and spread of Covid-19,” the grievance states.

The union has requested that the Department of Human Services immediately rescind the reclassification as essential for those employees previously designated as non-essential, and that DHS immediately provide any and all necessary supplies, equipment and work adaptations to those employees, as well as restore any leave the workers may have been required to use because of the change to essential employee designation.

James said that DHS is monitoring the situation, and “if additional adjustments become necessary, decisions will be made and communicated.”

“But this work is essential,” she said, “and we cannot abandon the people who need or may need these programs when they are needed most.”

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