State Workers’ Stories on Pandemic Response Conflict With State Officials’

AFSCME Council 3 workers drove in a caravan recently in an appeal to the Board of Public Works for safer workplaces during the pandemic. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

Sean Santmyire, an AFSCME Council 3 union member and job specialist for the Maryland Department of Labor, said Tuesday that the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “poor.”

“Shortage of equipment, training and staffing has placed our membership in dangerous positions,” he said.

Even after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) mandated non-essential workers to work remotely, Santmyire said unemployment insurance workers were left to report to their offices for several weeks due to a lack of laptops. He said they were not provided extra personal protective equipment. 

Obviously, personal protective equipment and computers are not the Department of Labor’s sole challenges.

Maryland’s unemployment rate has sky-rocketed due to layoffs induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some people waiting weeks for assistance filing for unemployment insurance — if they can even get through the state’s computer or phone systems at all.

Santmyire told the House Appropriation and Senate Finance committees Tuesday that employees who take unemployment claims over the phone and online were given just four hours of training the night before the new BEACON system was activated. 

“The shortage of trained staff who had the proper equipment and training has put many Maryland families without checks and without communication from DoL,” he said. “Because we have so many people who cannot get through to [an unemployment insurance] professional via email or phone, many cannot get answers why they have not received their payment.”

“Our governor promised these hard-working people that his administration would be there for them. In the recent weeks, and now going on months, this promise has fallen by the wayside for these folks, and so many others,” said Santmyire.

Almost a month after close to 200 Marylanders testified before lawmakers on their hard-fought battles to get assistance from the Department of Labor, Senate Finance Committee Vice Chairman Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) says the state’s unemployment system “is still a complete disaster.”

“We thought at that time … that a month later, there would have been, you know, tremendous improvements, but, again, we’re not seeing it on the ground,” he said. 

Feldman isn’t the only legislator mystified by the lack of transparency from the department.

“Every time I try to find out about unemployment there is just a stone wall,” Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) told Santmyire, “and Sean, you have said more today than anyone from the Department of Labor has said to me.”

Department of Labor spokeswoman Fallon Pearre told Maryland Matters in an email that the agency began distributing more than 260 laptops to employees statewide in April.

“All claims employees have the ability to process claims using these laptops while teleworking,” she said.

Additionally, Pearre said that department staff began BEACON system training in October 2019, receiving additional training on April 22 and 23 before the official launch.

Government transparency has been strained, to say the least, as members of the legislative committees found during a battle of “he-said-she-said” between state officials and union members at the joint hearing Tuesday.

“Folks, this is going to get worse,” said House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). “It’s about to get worse. When the impact from the CARES Act — the federal aid — begins to phase out in a month and two, it’s going to get worse.”

For months, AFSCME Council 3 has been pushing for protections for its members — from unrestrained access to personal protective equipment to adequate staffing at agencies straining from the burden of COVID-19.

“To this day, unfortunately, there are departments and institutions that have still not addressed many of the basics that need to happen in order for the state to successfully move forward and take on the pandemic to ensure safety in the workplace and for the employees,” AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said. 

Now, with an eye towards an uncertain financial future, the state is looking to enter negotiations with its unionized workers.

Moran said that last Friday, AFSCME received an email from the Department of Budget Management regarding the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget, which he believes will lead to discussions surrounding wage decreases, furloughs and layoffs. 

McIntosh said that the General Assembly will have to be “fairly vigilant” over upcoming negotiations between the Hogan administration and state workers.

Where are the masks?

Lawmakers heard shocking, contradicting arguments from department representatives and their employees — especially concerning health and safety precautions.

Gregg Todd, deputy secretary of operations for the Maryland Department of Health, told the committees that the department’s 11 facilities have reported just two outbreaks.

AFSCME Council 3 member Donna Kilmore, a social worker at Spring Grove Hospital Center — a state-run mental health facility in Baltimore, told committee members that she has seen 18 infections and three deaths on her unit alone. 

“If support had been consistent and timely, it would not have been that bad,” she said.

Kilmore said that Spring Grove’s CEO, Dwain Shaw, stated in late May that there are no more active COVID-19 cases in her facility. Kilmore said this hasn’t been confirmed by universal testing, and that staff members are no longer being supplied with N95 masks by the department. 

Todd said that state-run hospitals have stocks of N95 respirators, but don’t issue them unless the need is “clinically indicated.” 

“We routinely offer surgical masks to hospital staff,” he said. 

Kilmore said that the Maryland Department of Health had instructed her to begin using and reusing her disposable surgical mask on April 1 — not even a month into Maryland’s public health crisis.

She said that she and her fellow workers have been begging for supplies, and are “interrogated” when they ask for more.

“Working in an underfunded behavioral health setting, we are used to being understaffed and doing more with less, but MDH’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been particularly negligent,” Kilmore told the committees. 

Todd said that after a “mass order campaign” in collaboration with the Department of General Services, the Maryland Department of Health has now stockpiled:

  • 6.4 million N-95 respirators
  • 8.7 million KN95 masks
  • 23 million surgical masks
  • 17 million gloves
  • 1.2 million face shields
  • 2.1 million gowns

Todd said the shipments are stored in warehouses and that about 60% of it is sent out to local health departments on a weekly basis. From there, supplies are distributed to hospitals and nursing homes. 

The goal is to maintain a “60-day supply” in a stockpile, he said.

Todd broke down the Department of Health’s hierarchy of personal protective equipment allotment, starting with EMS and health care workers in hospitals, emergency rooms, nursing homes and dialysis centers, followed by medical staff in urgent care clinics, primary care doctors offices and direct care workers in local health departments.

At the bottom of the three-tiered system are those who work in congregate facilities like schools and prisons.

Todd said that 10% of the Department of Health’s personal protective equipment stock goes to the state’s detention centers “based on need.”

Jessup Correctional Institute officer and AFSCME member Oluwadamilola Olaniyan told lawmakers that at the start of the pandemic, his facility had N95 masks and gowns.

“But two weeks into the pandemic, they were packed up, taken out of JCI to be put in a centralized location and we never saw them again,” he said. “My colleagues, we are frightened seeing those PPE’s being moved out of the institution when we most need them to survive.”

A Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services daily operational report update from March 23 stated facility staff members were “strictly prohibited from reporting to work wearing a mask” at all. 

This policy was walked back a week later.

Christopher McCully, the deputy secretary of administration for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, detailed a series of steps the agency took to stop the virus’ spread in its facilities, including screening staff members for symptoms and “deploy[ing] face shields, cloth masks and gloves to all correctional employees.” 

The department also reportedly handed out over 28,000 N95 masks to staff members in April.

“We kept in lock-step with CDC and Department of Health guidelines to protect all of our employees and inmates,” McCully said. 

Incarcerated individuals are also provided masks, and McCully said the department has supplied them with 245,000 bars of soap. Staff who monitor infected or symptomatic inmates held in isolation are given additional personal protective equipment. 

To limit their impact on the state’s supply chain, the department has tasked Maryland Correctional Enterprises — a prison labor training program — with creating 76,000 cloth masks, 27,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, 36,000 face shields and 4,000 gowns.

Olaniyan said that the masks provided to employees from Maryland Correctional Enterprises are made from the same material as his uniform, don’t fit right and make it hard to breathe.

The department is currently reporting 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across its facility staff and 234 infections among inmates. 

After Hogan implemented universal testing late last month, a reported 6,437 inmates and 3,719 staff have been tested.

Michael Ziegler, the department’s deputy secretary of operations, said that they are still completing their “point in time” testing, and will come up with a protocol for additional testing when that phase is through.

Ziegler said they are expected to finish testing by the end of the month.

Eight inmates have died of the virus since April.

Maryland’s first correctional officer died Monday afternoon — a woman in her 60s who had served for 20 years. She worked at a facility in Baltimore City. 

“Our thoughts and prayers are with her family at this difficult time,” McCully said. 

Moran said she was a longtime member of the union, and expressed his condolences to her family and coworkers.

“We are very disappointed that this happened,” he said. “We are very grateful that this is the first time that this has happened but, you know, we just feel that there are a lot of things that could have been done all along the way to prevent outcomes such as this, and we hope there are no more examples of this moving forward.”

‘A personal responsibility’

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has struggled with staffing shortages for years.

Ziegler said that because they have “cut a lot of posts” to limit movement throughout facilities, he believes that instances of overtime have decreased. 

Olaniyan said that staffing problems have been “exacerbated” during the pandemic. 

“While we know there is a personal responsibility to own up if we are not feeling well, we also face the guilt of leaving our brothers and sisters shorthanded.”

AFSCME union member Denise Henderson, a transportation officer for the Department of Juvenile Services, has had a similar experience with her department.

Henderson said that at the onset of the pandemic, the department barred employees from wearing masks unless there was “evidence” of COVID-19 in their facilities. 

“Not being proactive but reactive affected the morale of the employees,” she said.

Henderson said that weeks after they were finally allowed to wear protective equipment, some facilities had yet to receive any protective equipment or cleaning supplies. She also said that the department has not sent its employees an emergency response plan.

“As an essential employee, you had to decide: ‘Do I go to work and risk infection and support my co-workers? Or do I stay at home and keep my family and myself safe?’”

Betsy Fox Tolentino, assistant secretary of Strategic Initiatives for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said that her department had “an adequate supply of PPE right away” — noting that it had learned lessons about stockpiling supplies after the H1N1 epidemic of 2009. 

“We have a wide variety of PPE available to our staff,” she said. “We have N95 masks, cloth masks, surgical masks, gloves, shoe covers, isolation gowns and suits, face shields, goggles, and headcovers,” adding that the prioritized recipients are medical staff and those who directly infected or exposed youths. 

Facility residents are also provided with masks. 

“At this point, we feel our supply of PPE is adequate,” she said at the hearing.

The department has seen COVID-19 infections in seven kids — all of whom are reportedly recovered; 19 staff members have also gotten sick, four of whom are still actively infected.

Henderson said that contact tracing in the department in the past has been “non-existent,” and that sometimes staff was told up to three days after coming into contact with an infected individual. Sometimes they weren’t told at all.

“I found out by reading a newspaper article that the building I report to every day had a new COVID case,” she said. 

Henderson said that her work conditions have slowly improved over time, but worries that it might be too late — especially with negotiations on the horizon.

“All we are asking for is to be provided with the information we need to keep us safe and the youth safe,” she said. “Give us the support we deserve.”

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