Apr 29, 2020
A troubling report last week from the Los Angeles Times indicates that many employees at essential California state agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, may have been exposed to COVID-19 due to possible negligence on the part of officials.
According to state officials, a minimum of 157 workers (including 11 California Highway Patrol employees) confirmed that they contracted coronavirus. Most of the employees indicated that they suspect the contraction of COVID-19 occurred on the job, a result of too much close contact to customers and a lack of personal protective equipment (including hand sanitizer) provided by their employers.
Union leaders indicated to the Times that they believe the real number of infections is actually much higher, citing that the state is currently only tracking cases self-reported by employees. Such an incomplete process would render any current estimates of infected workers (including tracking whether or not they could have possibly infected other co-workers) woefully inaccurate.
An inter-office memo to employees from the DMV’s director stated, “There have been DMV team member cases of COVID-19 in multiple offices in the state, including the Sacramento Headquarters building.” However, the DMV has reportedly not yet disclosed where all infected employees were assigned, and many employees throughout the agency are concerned about whether or not the offices in which they work may have been exposed. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one employee told the Times, “Everybody just became afraid and wanted to go home and not come back to the building.”
Increased concern has been expressed by additional civil servants deemed essential by the state, and required to stay on the job, who report that state officials’ efforts to protect them have been inconsistent and lacking. The Los Angeles Times reportedly interviewed union shop stewards in multiple state agencies who confirmed that, “in cases in which employees are still expected to report to the office, many workers are calling in sick or deciding to use family leave hours so they can stay home to take care of children who are out of school.”
Complaints have reportedly remained persistent from those workers still in contact with the public who have had to continue working in crowded offices. Representatives of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents 96,000 state workers, report having not been given enough personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, to the Times. One SEIU shop steward, David Jimenez, called the state’s response to employee complaints about a lack of hand sanitizer and insufficient office cleaning “slow.” “In my department, people feel that the state dragged its feet quite a bit,” that individual told the Times.
The Times also obtained an email to Department of Social Services state employees last week that indicated the “earliest delivery date” for hand sanitizer remained April 15, while the delivery date for wipes, tissues, and gloves “remained April 30.” “There is still no guarantee on anything right now per the vendors,” the memo read.
Additionally, the Times cited a dispute at the California Lottery, where employees are challenging the determination that their work is essential, requiring them to work away from home. Lottery workers complained that the agency took too long to protect workers, including a sales representative who was hospitalized in serious condition because of COVID-19.
“We have lost confidence in lottery leadership to guide the lottery during this global crisis, to protect the workers, to protect the retailers, and to protect the public,” said Paulina Vasquez, a sales representative and union shop steward, during a Lottery Commission telemeeting on March 30. “We were left on the front lines too long.” Vasquez also indicated that she suffered through COVID-19 symptoms, but (like many other state employees) “wasn’t tested.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic represents uncharted legal territory in many ways, the Los Angeles Times report appears to indicate that officials are openly admitting COVID-19 is being contracted by essential employees while working at various state agencies. Moreover, upon identifying an unsafe work environment, officials appear to have failed to take necessary steps to protect additional employees from contracting the virus (with workers presumably continuing to go to work today without essential PPE being provided).
If you or a loved one has contracted coronavirus while performing essential workplace duties at an unsafe state agency, please contact us immediately. One of our workers’ compensation or labor law experts will assess your unique situation carefully and provide you with the guidance you need to not only stay safe but also ensure that your rights are protected under the law.
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