Philly caseworkers take leave, DHS closes offices after COVID-19 diagnoses

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This story was updated at 1:26 pm with additional information on the Elmwood office and 2:52 pm with additional information.

Workers at two state Department of Human Services offices in Philadelphia who were ordered to report to work by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration left their posts unmanned after learning of at least four COVID-19 cases among their colleagues this week.

The incidents took place at the Somerset District and the Elmwood District of the Philadelphia County Assistance Office on Thursday and Friday after employees learned of the positive cases, according to state Rep. G. Roni Green, D-Philadelphia.

After learning about the cases, the workers took sick time and left the office using “their contractual rights to protect themselves” and based off of federal self-quarantine recommendations, according to Green.

“Workers there were concerned for their safety and concerned for their families safety,” she said. “That’s to be expected. It’s not a hypothetical situation anymore.”

Green is a former county assistance caseworker, and also was an official in the caseworkers’ union, Service Employees International Union Local 668. 

The positive cases also led DHS to shutdown the two assistance offices, as well as Delancey District office, due to potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“In order to protect the health and safety of employees working in these offices, we are closing and working with building management to thoroughly clean all spaces in accordance with guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” DHS spokesperson Erin James said.

James said the goal is to have the office cleaned and operational again by Monday, but work will be transferred to other county offices if necessary.

The Capital-Star called the Somerset office at 2:40 p.m. Thursday. That call ended prematurely. Subsequent calls were automatically answered with a message to call again later. A call to the center at 10:13 a.m. Friday also ended prematurely.

James declined to comment on the specifics of either case, but said that the department understands “that the altered landscape of this staff’s work has understandably raised numerous concerns and questions.”

The Wolf administration has previously cited medical confidentiality laws to say it cannot comment on any specific COVID-19 cases among employees.

She added that the department will releases new guidance Friday outlining protections for assistance workers, and empowering their management “to make informed decisions for how to handle the threat of COVID-19 in the workplace.”

State human service workers from across the commonwealth had previously raised concerns about their working conditions. 

Speaking to the Capital-Star over the past two weeks, they’ve described offices that had not been professionally cleaned, lacked hand sanitizer and other sanitary supplies, and with tight quarters that did not meet CDC social distancing guidelines.

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

 

DHS, which runs the county assistance offices, has said it is “monitoring this situation hour-by-hour and actively working to address employee concerns and implement strategies that mitigate the risk” from coronavirus.

Remediation has included implementing staggered shifts, to cut down on staffing, as well as closing offices to the public.

The department also cited a strained supply chain for cleaning products. As for office cleanings the department, which leases offices for some assistance workers, “is in communication with landlords across the commonwealth about proper cleaning and CDC guidelines.”

The Wolf administration classified assistance workers, who process low-income utility, food and health care aid, as “essential employees”, ordering them to report for work in their office last week. Telework is “not currently an option” for assistance staff, the department added.

In a statement Thursday night, SEIU 668 confirmed that “several” union members, including those employed by the state Department of Human Services, had tested positive for coronavirus.

Union president Steve Catanese said the cases were “unacceptable.”

The department “has not moved quickly enough,” Catanese said. “I’m furious that our own members are now having to battle this extremely aggressive virus. This could have been prevented.”

The administration is offering 10 days of paid leave for state workers “if they are quarantined, self-quarantined on the advice of a healthcare provider, or have symptoms related to COVID-19.”

Such leave would “not count towards an employee’s earned annual or sick leave,” Wolf spokesperson Daniel Egan said in an email.