Like so many churches, business and agencies, county assistance offices across Pennsylvania were closed to the public last month.
The Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which mandated the closure in all 67 of the state’s counties, kept employees on the job, though, to process applications and maintain cases for crucial benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid.
In doing so, department press secretary Erin James told The News in an email, the department placed the health and safety of those employees who continue to work in office spaces “at the forefront of our decisions as we move forward,” adding that “we are continuing to pursue options to keep employees safe with the Governor’s Office of Administration and are communicating this with employees and their union representation, including SEIU.”
However, some members of the Service Employees International Union say the department is not making good on its promise.
In a letter to The News, Cheryl Little — SEIU Local 668 Chapter 7 Chair and Chair of DHS Health & Safety Committee — said that she is receiving reports from local offices around the state and that union members are reporting a lack of social distancing and sanitization procedures.
Little said that while she agrees that it is vital for employees of county assistance offices to remain on the job, locations working with full staff complements -- especially those serving larger populations -- are requiring dozens of workers to share the same office space, restrooms and break rooms.
“We’ve asked for regular cleaning, skeleton crews, staggered shifts and telework in these offices,” Little wrote. “While DHS has implemented staggered shifts for larger offices, there are still offices where more than 80 workers are expected to arrive every single day. The other requests have not yet been enacted.
“Meanwhile, the workers are aware that CDC and PA Department of Health guidelines stipulate that people must be at least six feet apart from one another whenever they leave their homes. Unfortunately, some of these CAOs are so small, they’re not able to comply with these basic guidelines.
"We’ve had multiple offices with confirmed cases of coronavirus in the last week.”
Little also accused the Department of Human Services of not notifying employees that they may have been exposed to a co-worker who has tested positive for COVID-19.
She also alleged that offices are not being properly cleaned between shifts, or after a positive case has been confirmed.
“There are detailed guidelines of what must be done in order to protect office workers from exposure,” she said.” However, DHS is not enforcing these cleanliness standards equally in every statewide County Assistance Office. Commonwealth-owned buildings are cleaned by workers with the Department of General Services.
“But most of the CAOs are leased office space, meaning a landlord is responsible for hiring and enacting cleaning standards. DHS has a history of not enforcing cleaning standards with leased buildings. Those policies are continuing now …”
Little said she has shared her concerns with the departments of human services and health, but has yet to receive a response.
In the department’s response to The News regarding Little’s allegations, James said that DHS has taken multiple steps to ensure the health and safety of its employees, including:
•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 feet apart in offices and, if that is not possible, moving to the rotating shifts;
•Collaborating with the Department of General Services to send a communication specifically to the CAO lessors reminding them of their contractual obligation to properly clean our offices and requesting that they complete a log identifying when the office was cleaned
•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.