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Employee alleges DHS CAO office has ignored worker safety even after an employee tested positive for COVID-19

COVID-19 Exclusive March 27, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
An employee of the Department of Human Services (DHS) Somerset District office at 2701 N Broad Street alleges that even though a coworker was recently confirmed positive for COVID-19 and hospitalized, DHS hasn’t taken necessary precautions to ensure employee safety.

The employee, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed that staff was informed on March 26 about their coworker in the Philadelphia County Assistance Office, but that management was aware that it was a possibility as far back as March 23. An additional employee has allegedly tested positive.

The district office closed to the public on March 17, but employees have been working there throughout.

“Department of Human Services offices have not been properly cleaned since the news of an employee testing positive,” the employee told Generocity today. “Also, social distancing practices or procedures were not implemented until March 23, so many DHS offices ran daily with about 100+ employees or more, putting everyone at risk.”

The employee who spoke to Generocity said they were told that workers who did not go back to work today would not be paid.“The situation is bad, and I’m scared for my safety,” the employee added.

Christopher Hundley, public and government relations director of SEIU Local 668, confirmed that class action grievances covering health and safety issues at Philadelphia County Assistance Offices have been filed with the union.

A supervisor at the Somerset District office declined to comment. Ali Fogarty, communications director for the Department of Human Services, said they cannot confirm the cases due to confidentiality requirements.

“We understand that the altered landscape of this staff’s work has understandably raised numerous concerns and questions,” Fogarty said, “especially in terms of providing supplies, disinfecting offices, and implementing important social distancing practices. The health and safety of our team that are continuing to perform essential functions in office spaces is and will continue to be at the forefront of our decisions as we move forward.”

According to Fogarty, DHS is doing the following in an effort to protect staff working in the CAOs:

  • Closing CAOs to the public indefinitely to limit person-to-person contact;
  • Enacting staggered shifts in large CAOs, with two groups of staff rotating shifts in a 2-days-on, 2-days-off pattern;
  • Ordering antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies for all offices and supporting CAOs purchasing items if they become available;
  • Mandating social distancing practices such as seating people at least 6 ft. apart in offices and, if that is not possible, moving to the rotating shifts;
  • Collaborating with DGS to send a communication specifically to the CAO lessors reminding them of their contractual obligation to properly clean offices and requesting that they complete a log identifying when the office was cleaned; and,
  • Continuing to explore and evaluate other solutions such as telework and the identification of alternate work sites that will ensure the safety of our staff while maintaining the ability to ensure access to critical benefits.

Fogarty said that DHS is continuing to pursue options to keep employees safe with the Governor’s Office of Administration and is communicating this with employees and their union representation.

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“Guidance will be released today that will further outline the protections that we’re taking to protect CAO staff, and empower Office of Income Maintenance leadership to make informed decisions for how to handle the threat of COVID-19 in the workplace,” she added.

On Thursday, SEIU Local 668 President Steve Catanese said the conditions for workers at DHS offices were not acceptable.

“We’ve been going in circles with DHS for weeks, doing everything we could to get them to limit the exposure to our members,” he said. “We knew that, at some point, this virus was going to reach our workers, and we wanted DHS to be prepared — to have all offices professionally cleaned, to have skeleton crews in the office, and to have folks teleworking to continue to renew and review applications. But DHS has not moved quickly enough.”

“I’m furious that our own members are now having to battle this extremely aggressive virus. This could have been prevented,” he added.

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