By Stephen Caruso
For the Pittsburgh Capital-Star
The state of Pennsylvania is offering tens of thousands of workers paid leave as public offices shutter during the coronavirus. But workers who provide assistance to the commonwealth’s low-income residents say that, even with documented cases of COVID-19 in their offices, they are not getting similar support.
“The rules apply to everyone except the [county assistance officers], that’s what I’m gathering,” a state official familiar with their situation told the Capital-Star.
When Gov. Tom Wolf closed state offices nearly three weeks ago, he promised “a 10 workday paid absence for individuals who don’t have telework capabilities.”
The administration has added that the 10 days of leave is also open to workers “if they are quarantined, self-quarantined on the advice of a healthcare provider, or have symptoms related to COVID-19.”
But forced to return to their offices by the Wolf administration, several county assistance workers, who process low-income utility, food and medical assistance claims, have contracted the coronavirus. One employee in Scranton has been hospitalized.
The state has taken some steps to reduce the risk for these employees, such as ordering hand sanitizer and implementing staggered shifts.
And while the state’s offer of paid coronavirus leave looks generous, state workers have said the reality is much different.
Three Department of Human Services employees have told the Capital-Star that despite sharing doctors notes with managers, they’ve been forced to use their own personal leave.
These employees added that due to existing health conditions, they are at elevated risk from the coronavirus. At least one of the workers who was forced to use their own leave shared their office with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
This, as well as the hefty demands of work, have led some employees to flout self-quarantines and return to the office despite doctor’s warnings.
“It wasn’t even a question,” said one worker who went back to work early despite a doctor’s note. “It’s an unwritten rule that if you’re out too long … there are ungodly amounts of work when you come back in.”
The worker, who did not have coronavirus symptoms but was at elevated risk if he caught it, is now back out of work but is not receiving the administrative leave.
All of the state workers who spoke to the Capital-Star requested anonymity to speak candidly without risk of losing their jobs for bringing their concerns to the media.
Another case worker told the Capital-Star that a coworker had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
The caseworker then developed a fever, and under doctor’s orders, took two weeks off and waited to be tested.
He estimated that at least 10 coworkers were taking similar precautions.
“I just don’t want to infect anyone in the office,” he said. “I haven’t seen a person other than my wife in the last 12 days.”
Despite submitting a doctor’s note backing their rationale, the caseworker was told to use their banked sick and vacation time. Management, he said, would “figure it out later.”
For this caseworker, burning the leave time was not a big deal.
“My health and my safety comes first, and that’s what I’m putting first,” he said.
Another state worker, who has been trying to save up sick time for a surgery this fall, said that when she developed a cough recently she hoped to avoid using the banked leave.
Her county, among the hardest hit with COVID-19, has hundreds of cases of the illness. A doctor prescribed her a coronavirus test, but it took weeks for the employee to find a health care provider to give it.
In the meantime, she was warned by her union and management to stay away from the office until she had a negative test result or a doctor’s note that she no longer had symptoms.
After a week of searching, the employee was tested. The result was negative and she returned to work last week.
Despite the stern warning, the employee said that managers didn’t notice their return to the office.
“Nobody even asked for the documentation,” they said. “They’re threatening you and they don’t even bother to [keep] track.”
She hoped that the department would approve remote work soon, to let employees still process claims but from the safety of their homes.
The county assistance workers are one of a handful of public employee categories, along with first responders and sanitation workers, who are deemed essential to government operations and must return to work. Their jobs, the administration has argued, cannot currently be done remotely.
“We are continuing to evaluate options, including telework, that will ensure the safety of our staff while maintaining the ability to ensure access to critical benefits,” Erin James, spokesperson for DHS, said in an email.
Caseworkers have countered that little preparation was made for their sudden switch from non-essential to essential.
About two weeks after the switch, the department issued guidance in an FAQ shared with its staff on March 29.
In the FAQ, the department told workers that an individual who was in “close contact” with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 would be under a 14-day quarantine from the date of the contact.
But the department added that “working in the same office as someone who tests positive does not automatically necessitate self-quarantine or long-term office closure.”
Close contact was defined by the department as being within six feet of a COVID-19 case for 15 minutes plus, including while providing care as well as “having direct contact with infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case” — such as being coughed on.
James referred questions on leave and the FAQ to the Wolf administration’s front office press staff. The administration spokesperson did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
The FAQ added that the department is currently testing telecommuting for county assistance workers.
“However due to system limitations as well as the specific work processes performed” in the offices, the FAQ said that the department is unable to shift all operations to remote work.
There could be some capacity. One case worker told the Capital-Star that there are 20 unused laptops sitting in his office even as he continues to report to work.
Steve Catanese, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents thousands of state DHS workers, said that he knew of telecommuting trials throughout the state, and of other potential stores of laptops and other telework equipment.
As for the leave, Catanese said he has encouraged employees to “use your leave for now, but we think the administration should have broader policies in place.”
Across the state, county assistance workers have expressed fears of the coronavirus spreading in their offices.
The number of cases appears to be growing, According to an unofficial count from a private, SEIU 668 member Facebook page, at least five separate county assistance offices have cases of COVID-19.
Last week, state workers in two Philadelphia offices took leave and left their office’s empty by midday over health concerns.
DHS said both offices would be cleaned over the weekend, and employees would return to work.
Since caseworkers were sent back to work on March 17, they’ve cited irregular cleanings, shortages of cleaning supplies, and little information from management about coronavirus’ spread in their workplace.
“These aren’t offices that are inherently equipped to handle a pandemic,” Catanese told WILK-AM in Wilkes-Barre.
Stephen Caruso is a staff writer for the Penn Capital-Star where this story first appeared.