Employees Say State Falls Short on Curbing COVID at MVA Offices

Centers for Disease Control graphic

Union leaders representing Motor Vehicle Administration employees pressed the Hogan administration Thursday to step up efforts to prevent the workplace spread of COVID-19.

And they accused the agency of failing to disclose the number of employees who’ve become infected.

Employees said they are forced to rely on word-of-mouth to figure out how many front-line personnel have become infected. They insist they don’t want the names of workers who test positive, just updates on new cases.

AFSCME Council 3 officials and shop stewards from several MVA offices, speaking to reporters at a virtual news conference, also urged the agency to “deep clean” locations where workers have been infected and to install taller partitions between work stations.

Two state lawmakers participating in the event pledged to raise the workers’ concerns with Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).

“This is about protecting employees and the public,” said Wynton Johnson, a member of the AFSCME Executive Board.

AFSCME official Stuart Katzenberg said the union has tallied 10 cases in the Glen Burnie MVA office, six in Largo and one in Hagerstown. One employee at the Largo office died earlier this month.

When the Largo branch employee died, co-worker and AFSCME shop steward Walter Powell said plexiglass shields were in place between employees and customers, but no shields protected employees from each other at their work stations.

“It is very hard to talk to another employee that has received COVID, that is emotionally upset, crying in your ear. MVA does not hear that,” said Mildred Womble, an employee at the Glen Burnie branch and a union leader. “Once they’ve found out they’ve tested positive for COVID, it affects their family. It affects their grandchildren, their children. It affects the public.”

Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) said she was “deeply saddened” to learn that employees are fearful of getting sick at work and she pledged to press General Assembly leaders to hold hearings.

“We don’t want anyone to think that we’re going to sit back and allow this to happen without someone being accountable,” she said. “It’s very heart-wrenching. … We’re going to do what needs to be done by way of investigating the concerns that you have.”

Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George’s) said lawmakers would press for “full transparency” from MVA’s parent agency, the Maryland Department of Transportation. “And if they are not safe, they need to be shut down.”

In a statement to reporters, MVA said “the health and well-being” of workers is “our top priority.”

The agency said that locations are thoroughly cleaned daily and that “deep cleanings” are done whenever an employee tests positive for coronavirus. Also they said all MVA branches and MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie will be deep cleaned on Nov. 3, when they are closed for Election Day.

According to MVA officials, supervisors have taken steps to limit the public’s interaction with workers and all employees have been given safety kits with gloves, masks, wipes, sanitizer and instructions.

In addition, there is a new policy for communicating news of an infection within MVA branches. “As of Monday, October 26, notifications of a positive COVID-19 case are posted in an area that is accessible to the employees working in that area, for example a branch break room at a local branch office,” the statement said.

The agency also noted that all MVA branches will continue operating at reduced capacity, and are open to the public only by appointment, until further notice.

Courthouse outbreak

Earlier this week, two other AFSCME Council 3 units — the Maryland Defenders Union and the Maryland Judiciary Employees — petitioned the state’s chief judges about conditions at the District Courthouse on Wabash Avenue in Baltimore.

Following what the unions called “an ongoing outbreak” in that building, they demanded that it be closed for 72 hours to allow for offices to “be completely and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.”

Union officials also sought the right to open windows, greater use of virtual hearings for non-criminal cases,  installation of Plexiglas partitions between workers, and a limit on the public’s access to the clerk’s office.

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