Sent back to work, state human service workers say their offices aren’t prepared for the coronavirus

By: - March 23, 2020 3:28 pm

Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller, foreground, with Gov. Tom Wolf, background. (Courtesy of Wolf administration)

Update, 9:30 am Tuesday 3/24: In an email Monday night, Ali Fogarty, spokesperson for DHS, said that due to the coronavirus, “the entire supply chain for products such as sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer has been strained.”

All leases for an office of the commonwealth require regular cleaning, she added, and the state Department of General Services “is in communication with landlords across the commonwealth about proper cleaning and CDC guidelines.”

Fogarty also said that on top of the adaption of staggered shifts reported by the Capital-Star, the department is also “in the process of moving some CAO employees to alternative office locations so that employees have more space to work and reduced contact with each other.”

Original Story:

After telling state employees to work from home to stop the spread of COVID-19 last Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration pivoted and sent thousands of human service workers back to their cramped offices the next day.

The reversal, which came in a late-night email, came with few additional protections for workers’ health and safety, according to interviews with state employees across the commonwealth.

Workers sent back to work included employees working in four southeast counties that Wolf had previously shut down over coronavirus concerns, according to internal emails viewed by the Capital-Star.

In an email sent Tuesday, March 17, Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller defended the decision to the department’s staff, saying that the work — which includes processing applications for low-income utility or food assistance — is essential because “lives depend on it.”

State employees contacted by the Capital-Star, all of whom asked for anonymity to speak candidly about internal work matters, agreed that providing services was critical.

But they also described little preparation to either keep their offices safe from the spread of coronavirus — from limited hand sanitizer and paper towels to no regular cleanings and no access to protective equipment.

These human service employees routinely work in offices with dozens, if not hundreds of employees processing Medicaid, SNAP, low-income heating assistance and other welfare programs.

“It serves as a major distraction throughout the day as you can’t feel healthy and clean surrounded by that many people from different areas,” said one state employee in York County.

Workers at three different offices across Pennsylvania described similar office layouts, with four person cubicles where employees were close enough to touch arms.

The office work also seemingly contradicts standards laid out by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention and trumpeted by Pennsylvania’s own Department of Health.

In daily press conferences, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has repeatedly stressed that individuals can stay safe by staying home. Meanwhile, the federal government has advised against gatherings of more than 10 people.

The Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents thousands of DHS employees still on the job, is taking that suggestion to heart. 

Union president Steve Catanese said Monday that negotiations with the administration are ongoing to improve working conditions. That included adopting staggered shifts to prevent cramped offices.

Workers are “being relied on in a way they’ve never been before and they need support from the Commonwealth to match,” Catanese said.

Not a matter of if

Catanese first noted state employees’ concerns to the Capital-Star last week.

COVID-19 outbreak in Pa.: What’s open and what’s closed

Workers then independently reached out to the Capital-Star in subsequent days, saying they and other employees were at risk of catching coronavirus in their offices and spreading it to loved ones.

One Philadelphia employee said that their office, with at least 70 employees, was not getting regularly cleaned, leaving the task to the workers themselves. The office bathrooms also sometimes ran out of paper towels during the day.

Some coworkers are commuting into the city from Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties, hotbeds for infection in the state, the employee added.

By showing up, they risked exposing other coworkers, including some who are elderly or immunocompromised — putting them at greater risk from the coronavirus. 

The employee added that he lives with his two elderly parents, increasing his concerns.

“It’s not even a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” the Philadelphia employees get sick, they said, “and then you have a whole office [that has] to be admitted.” And “if we all go down, nobody is getting” any services.

Erin James, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services, told the Capital-Star in a March 19 email that the department recognizes the “frustration and concern” over its decision to keep county assistance offices open.

“However, these job functions are essential and cannot be performed off-site with existing technological capacity,” she said.

The department announced some changes last week that included closing county assistance offices to the public to limit potential exposure. 

James added that the department was “following CDC recommendations for environmental cleaning and directing owners of leased buildings that we operate in to do the same.”

“We continue to monitor this on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis,” James told the Capital-Star. “If additional adjustments become necessary, decisions will be made and communicated, but this work is essential and we cannot abandon the people who need or may need these programs when they are needed most.”

The state’s rickety IT infrastructure also raised workers’ concerns.

One employee, for example, said that their case management software had failed twice in two days last week — citing pressure from remote work.

“If the idea was we’re going to be helping people,” the employee said, but “we can’t really work if the system was down.”

James said that there were not any systemic technology issues within the department. She added that “given the unprecedented nature of this emergency, there are some challenges to work through.”

Deemed essential

There are eight DHS offices whose employees must report for work outside their homes — including workers processing Medicaid applications, child-abuse investigators and state hospital employees — according to an email that department secretary Miller sent to staff March 17.

But this was not the initial message that caseworkers received from the administration. On Monday, March 16 at 3 p.m., the Wolf administration sent out a mass email saying that “non-essential” workers could work from home.

Most of the workers sent back to their offices “have historically been deemed non-essential,” according to a letter sent to the Wolf administration by the SEIU 668 March 17.

The Philadelphia caseworker added that during routine office closings, such as snow days, his coworkers had never been ordered to go to work. They and others never expected that they’d be ordered in during the closure.

But at 9 p.m. on March 16, six hours after the remote work email, deputy DHS Secretary Lisa Watson told case workers in the Office of Income Maintenance that they were deemed essential, and had to show up for work the next day, Tuesday, March 17, or use their existing paid leave.

“We need our staff to be available to complete the time sensitive vital work we do so that we can continue to provide critical and life-sustaining services to the people who so desperately need us,” Watson wrote in the evening note.

They were classified, along with police, fire, emergency medical services and sanitation as essential during the coming pandemic, according to a press release laying out Wolf’s coronavirus response.

DHS spokesperson James did not clarify how many department employees were reclassified. 

But there were some hints that the department was ready to make changes in earlier communications to employees.

In an email sent March 13, before Wolf’s shutdown order, Secretary Miller told the department’s 16,000 employees that “continued flexibility will be the key to successfully navigating” the coronavirus impacts. 

Miller added: “But I want to be clear that we are prepared to take actions that protect your health and preserve the essential functions of our department.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.