AUGUSTA, Maine — Some Maine state employees say their departments are not taking enough precautions to prevent the potential spread of the new coronavirus as units run short on sanitation supplies and state workers test positive.
As of Tuesday, there were 303 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maine, up from 118 just a week ago. Several state employees have been sickened with the virus, including an Augusta-based worker with the Department of Environmental Protection and a Lewiston-based Department of Health and Human Services worker.
A spokesperson for Maine’s budget department said on Monday that commissioners informally estimated about 70 percent of state employees — excluding emergency and public safety personnel, are now working remotely — though it would be difficult for the department to report a precise number due to the “fluidity” of the situation.
But employees who still find themselves heading to work say they are confronting varied standards and circumstances. Some divisions offer temperature checks; others do not. Workers are discouraged from gathering in break rooms with more than 10 others according to Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition on gatherings with groups of that size, but they say they still touch the same surfaces as dozens of co-workers each day.
“People are concerned,” said Tom Feeley, general counsel to the Maine Service Employees Union, which represents more than 12,000 state workers. “People don’t feel safe.”
In an email to employees on Monday, Commissioner Jerry Reid of the Department of Environmental Protection said the worker who tested positive for the virus had not been at the department’s office during business hours since March 19 but returned to the Augusta office over the weekend to retrieve items.
The office is closed Tuesday for cleaning, Reid said, though he told employees that it would re-open on Wednesday, saying the probability of transmission was “extremely low.”
The union asked the state to send all “nonessential” employees home two weeks ago, saying such a move would protect state workers and reduce the likelihood of transmission among first responders and public health workers. The state has since encouraged more to telecommute, while departments have put in precautions to protect workers still on the job.
But state agencies have run into some of the problems that many Mainers are seeing in their daily lives, such as shortages of sanitation supplies. Paradoxically, transportation workers said workplace changes aimed at encouraging social distancing made it difficult for them to do parts of their jobs while falling short of protecting them against the virus.
McKedra Clements, a union member and transportation employee based in Bangor, said her unit, which includes more than two dozen workers, had only a handful of small containers of hand sanitizer at the start of the outbreak and had been unable to acquire more. She said that was especially concerning as many of the unit’s workers were in their 50s or 60s or had preexisting health conditions.
Since Friday, the department had adopted a policy of having only one worker in a state vehicle at a time, rather than two. But employees said they are still concerned about transmission of the disease because many workers touch the same pieces of equipment every day.
“We all use the same buildings, the same door handles, the same equipment tools whether you split us up or not,” said Brian Markey, another union member who works in the same transportation unit as Clements.
Department of Transportation spokesperson Paul Merrill said on Tuesday the department was making “every effort” to keep crews supplied with cleaning supplies and had ordered more hand sanitizer and wipes arriving in the next two weeks. Merrill said surfaces are disinfected twice daily and the maintenance crews had taken measures to ensure distancing, including modifying schedules to reduce the number of employees congregating at the beginning of a shift.
State transportation employees are responsible for highway maintenance, cutting trees and patching potholes, among other tasks. But workers said that, due to social distancing restrictions, their units’ operations were limited to trash pick-up and other simple tasks because many regular activities would require workers to be in close proximity with one another.
“We can’t set up work zones or anything, so it’s kind of ‘find a job that one person can do by themselves,’” Clements said.
In a letter to Commissioner Bruce Van Note on Monday, union officials asked that transportation staff who are not working to deal with emergencies or aid the virus response be sent home on administrative leave. The union asked the department to have staff on call to work as needed.
A longtime Department of Transportation employee is among the five coronavirus deaths in Maine so far, the state announced over the weekend. The worker, a man in his 60s from Cumberland County, did not return to work after a vacation, the department said, so transmission to other state employees was unlikely.