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A union representing state workers said Tuesday that the death of a frontline Motor Vehicle Administration employee would not have happened if the state had taken proper precautions against COVID-19.
The unidentified customer service agent worked at the MVA office in Largo.
He died on Friday after being off work for two weeks following a COVID-19 diagnosis, said Walter Powell, an AFSCME Council 3 shop steward and coworker.
Powell said the worker was the fifth employee from the Largo MVA to test positive for coronavirus and the first to die. He said the death has sent shockwaves through the workplace.
“They are terrified,” he said of his coworkers. “They are terrified to go back to work and to put themselves and their families in jeopardy of catching this disease, because there are a lot of people who have pre-existing conditions.”
In a statement the MVA said the employee with the most recent case confirmed by a test was last in the Largo office on Oct. 3.
“We have been in contact with that team member’s family, and grief counselors are being arranged for staff at the Largo branch office as we get through this tragedy together as an MDOT MVA family,” the statement said.
“We will continue to support our employees with any resources we have available while they remain in quarantine. Contact tracing has been underway to determine others these individuals may have been in contact with, and they have been instructed to self-quarantine due to potential exposure.”
Powell said the agency has provided workers with gloves, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. But he said the employee who died worked just two stations away from another employee who tested positive.
“There’s plexiglass that protects us from the customer but there’s nothing that protects the employee from the employee,” he said.
In its statement, MVA said customers and staff are required to wear face coverings and participate in a brief health screening and temperature scan in order to enter any agency facility.
“As we navigate this pandemic health emergency, MDOT MVA encourages all employees to take care of themselves and their families by closely following the Governor’s Executive Orders and CDC and Maryland Department of Health guidelines, which include social distancing, washing hands frequently, and staying home if they are sick,” the statement said.
AFSCME Council 3’s director of collective bargaining, Stuart Katzenberg, said “closed” ventilation in workplaces like the Largo MVA is “dangerous” and needs to be improved.
“These are Larry Hogan’s employees that are getting sick and he is not doing enough to protect them,” said Katzenberg.
The agency said a “thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the office” was done following the first notification, on Oct. 5, and a second cleaning occurred on Monday. The agency is working with the state Department of Health, the statement said.
The office of Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) was unaware of the outbreak, a spokeswoman said.
“My heart goes out to our members who are dealing with this crisis,” said AFSCME MVA local President Mildred Womble in a statement. “This was all preventable if management had taken the safety of their employees seriously. Instead they have put frontline workers in grave danger.”
AFSCME Council 3 wants the state to release an agency-by-agency count of infection and death rates.
“The administration won’t test all state employees returning to work and has failed to be transparent about how many of our brothers and sisters are getting sick with COVID-19,” said AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran.
“By our count, just what our members report to us, over 900 state employees have contracted COVID while work and at least, now, 3 have died,” he added.