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State employees are pushing for more input in how Maine government gradually returns them to their offices as the state’s phased reopening continues.
About 85 percent of non-public safety employees were working from home as of early April, when the coronavirus pandemic had caused much of the state to shut down, according to the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. But some state departments are gradually reopening offices this month.
Some departments, such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the state archives, have started to come back by appointment only.
Others are coming back with limited hours and occupancy. The state-funded Maine State Museum reopened Wednesday, but will only be open Wednesdays through Saturdays and will be limited to 50 visitors at a time. Visitors will be required to wear masks — disposable masks will be provided — and directed through the museum along one-way paths.
Perhaps the most significant return to state offices is happening at the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s largest agency. The department returned 140 of its 3,400 employees to 16 regional offices around the state this week, said Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.
Many of those are child welfare case workers who have been doing virtual check-ins with families during the pandemic. Other employees will be available to the public in case people need help signing up for benefits, she said. Employees will be required to wear masks in hallways, bathrooms and elevators, and tables have been removed from break rooms to discourage congregating.
But little has been shared with employees about how the departments are choosing to phase people back in or how they plan to notify other employees when someone is believed to be sick, said Dean Staffieri, president of the Maine Service Employees Association, which represents state employees. That lack of information has caused employees anxiety as the reopening continues, he said.
“If an employee had symptoms, no one was notified of those concerns until that person was deemed positive,” he said, referring to times when employees who were not working from home were sick.
Staffieri outlined additional concerns to Gov. Janet Mills in a May 18 letter requesting that she convene a committee on building safety provided for in the union’s contract with the state. Employees had reported inadequate social distancing standards in offices and a lack of protective equipment and cleaning procedures, he wrote. Some hadn’t been allowed the ability to telework.
“We suspect these issues will only grow in scale and severity as the State begins the process of bringing employees back into their worksites,” he wrote.
Committee members have since been appointed and the panel will meet soon, Staffieri said. He hopes it will give employees a chance to weigh in on what their return to state offices looks like.
There has been friction between state employees and the administration during the pandemic. The state expanded leave options for employees, but the union complained that the state categorized too many employees as emergency personnel, blocking many from accessing those benefits.
Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa said individual commissioners are determining how their agencies’ offices will reopen. Many employees are still working remotely because their jobs do not require that they directly interact with the public, she said.
There have only been a few instances in which state buildings have had to close due to illness during the pandemic. A Lewiston DHHS office closed twice after employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Overall, nine state employees have tested positive, but none of those were related to the workplace, Figueroa said.
What sickened the largest number of state employees during the pandemic, however, remains under investigation. The Maine Emergency Management Agency closed its emergency operations center almost two weeks ago after state employees started showing symptoms of the coronavirus.
Ultimately, 19 employees — nine with MEMA, five with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and five with the Maine Army National Guard — reported feeling sick, said Susan Faloon, a spokesperson for MEMA. Staff resumed working in the center Wednesday, two days after the building was projected to open.
Faloon said the air and water systems in the building tested negative for any disease, and the building has been cleaned since the employees became sick, although the ventilation system was not.
But bacteria were found in four new humidifiers purchased during the pandemic and used frequently by emergency operations staff, Faloon said. They were filled with water from the building, she said.
The Maine CDC is still working to determine what may have caused the illness, said Director Nirav Shah. Some bacteria naturally occur in the air, he said, but may have concentrated in a sufficient quantity to sicken people.
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