An attorney for the largest union representing state workers said Monday that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is not doing enough to protect its workers from contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Tom Feeley, the general counsel for MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, spoke one day after the state announced the third positive test of a DHHS employee and said the department was closing its Rockland office Monday for cleaning and sanitizing. DHHS previously closed its Lewiston office after employees tested positive.

Feeley said DHHS was only notifying co-workers of a potential exposure when one of their colleagues tested positive for the illness and not when they first go out on sick leave.

That’s a problem because of the long incubation period of COVID-19, Feeley said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a person can be infected for up to 14 days before showing any symptoms.

“We are concerned this is a recipe for disaster,” Feeley said.

He said the union, which represents about 12,000 state and municipal workers, had received reports from 20 state workers that they were quarantining at home because they may have been exposed to the virus.

“But I’m sure the actual number is much higher,” he said.

Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for DHHS, said the agency could not provide more details about confirmed cases of COVID-19 among state workers because of privacy laws, and she would not say how many DHHS workers had been asked to self-quarantine.

“Maine CDC conducts contact tracing for all positive cases and speaks with all individuals who may be at risk of exposure, including coworkers of confirmed cases,” she said in a written statement. “Individuals who are determined to have had close contact with someone who tested positive are asked to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Employees within DHHS offices where a confirmed individual worked have been notified as have all employees of the department.”

The DHHS Lewiston office reopened on Monday, she said.

The office of Gov. Janet Mills referred questions about state worker test results and illness to the Maine Department of Administration and Financial Services. That agency’s spokesman, Kyle Hadyniak, did not answer questions about the number of state employees infected or quarantined.

He said DAFS was collecting more information, adding that the administration has urged workers who are not feeling well to stay home and has updated its sick leave policies to conform with new federal law related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“DAFS estimates that approximately 85 percent of state employees – excluding emergency, hospital, crisis, public health and public safety personnel – are currently dispatching or working remotely,” Hadyniak said in a written statement. “Having much of the workforce work remotely creates more space in offices, and state government is implementing physical distancing measures.”

The state has confirmed cases in four workers, including the three in DHHS and one Maine Department of Transportation employee who died after apparently being exposed while traveling.

The DHHS is the largest employer in state government, with about 3,200 workers statewide, according the department’s website.

The department’s workers perform a range of critical functions from investigating child abuse and neglect to administering public assistance benefit programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance programs.

Many of the programs it manages and administers are critical to the lives of thousands of Mainers, and ongoing efforts have been made by the administration to keep it operational during the pandemic.

On March 17, the department announced steps to support physical distancing in its 16 regional offices. “In line with guidance from the U.S. CDC, DHHS limited interactions with the public to accepting paperwork for drop-off,” the agency said in a written statement. “The department’s regional offices are open to the public only for paperwork drop-offs from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.”

Those seeking assistance from the department have been encouraged to submit their applications online through the department’s MyMaineConnection portal. Paperwork also can be submitted via fax, email or postal carrier. Individuals also can call the toll-free number at 855-797-4357 for assistance. Agents are available from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

It a news release Sunday, DHHS noted that the Rockland worker who tested positive was last in the office two weeks ago and the employee’s role did not involve meeting with clients in their homes or engaging significantly with the public in the office.

Dean Staffieri, MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 president, said he doesn’t understand the need to reopen the Rockland office immediately, especially after what happened with the Lewiston office.

“The whole thing just seems like a rush,” he said. “I’m not seeing management using all its power to protect the workers. There’s no notifying co-workers who are around and possibly exposed. They aren’t telling workers about that so they can make decisions for themselves and their families. It’s only after a test comes back positive and that’s way too late.”

Feeley, the union lawyer, said at least five other workers at the Lewiston DHHS office, which has closed twice in the last three weeks to be sanitized after two workers there tested positive for COVID-19, were in self-quarantine. The positive cases in Lewiston were announced by DHHS on March 25 and April 1.

During a media briefing Monday, Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said community transmission – where newly diagnosed patients pick up the disease from unknown individuals in the community rather than a known source – had still only been identified in two Maine counties, Cumberland and York. Lewiston is in Androscoggin County.

Shah said the Maine CDC had identified 499 positive cases of COVID-19 in Maine since the state identified its first infection on March 12.

Feeley said DHHS and other state departments won’t disclose to the union how many workers have been directed to self-quarantine by either a supervisor or a health care provider, and that co-workers are fearful that, without notice, they might unknowingly spread the virus to their families or others.

Feeley said some workers live with elderly parents and others have children with compromised immune systems who could face severe illness or even death if they contract COVID-19. He said the union has been asking the administration to place workers who may be doing important, but nonessential work, on paid administrative leave.

The Mills’ administration announced over the weekend that it had agreed to pay a $3 to $5 an hour hazardous duty pay bonus to state Department of Corrections workers and employees at the state’s two secure psychiatric hospitals.

Staffieri, the union president, said the workers most at risk are on the “lower end of the pay-scale.”

“They don’t have the power or the setups to be working from home,” he said. “Managers have been gone a long time, but you’re forcing other people to come in who might feel like they can’t afford to not be there but also don’t feel like they can speak up.”

 

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