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Keswick workers barred from work by building closure forced to use vacation days, personal days

They weren't allowed to be at work, but now they're paying for being absent.

Some administrative employees who were barred from the Johns Hopkins at Keswick complex in North Baltimore twice in the last two weeks because the buildings were closed due to outbreaks of illness are being told to use personal time or vacation days to make up for the time missed, Johns Hopkins officials confirmed Wednesday.

Others were working overtime to catch up. For example, the majority of 284 patient financial services employees who work on the fifth floor of the Keswick complex's south building worked overtime hours three days last week — including Saturday — to make up for the day they had missed.

"It's not something that was just made up," said Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman, of the policy requiring the employees to make up the days. "This is the policy that applies to these sorts of situations, which has been applied in the past."

O'Shea said he could not immediately determine how many employees would have to give up personal or vacation days, because the complex houses many different business units. The complex, at 3910 Keswick Road, houses about 1,050 employees who handle administrative functions for the Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.

Officials said in an announcement posted on the Keswick website that they would be holding meetings with employees through the day on Wednesday, to "address building conditions, health and safety, human resources issues and other issues."

On Feb. 26, nearly two dozen employees reported dizziness, nausea and headaches. Officials have said they identified the cause as a boiler that had been contaminated with nitrites and nitrates, chemicals that can cause such reactions in humans when ingested, breathed in or absorbed through the skin. The boiler has been removed.

Officials are still investigating the cause of nearly a dozen more illnesses, of similar symptoms, that broke out on Monday. They have flushed water sources attached to distinct sources from the boiler identified in the original outbreak, and planned to flush systems once more after employees had left for the day Wednesday.

Employees will be paid for full shifts on the days the outbreaks occurred, when medical, health and emergency personnel descended on the complex, Hopkins officials said. But the outbreaks also caused the south building of the complex to be closed on Feb. 27, the day after the first outbreak, and on Tuesday, the day after the second.

On those days, employees faced different circumstances. Some were offered other locations to work; others were able to work from home, officials said.

But for those who could not do their jobs from home and were not offered an alternative location to work, time must be made up, offcials determined.

Those employees can arrange with their bosses to work extra hours in coming days, O'Shea said. Or, health system employees can use "paid time off" and university employees can use vacation days, respectively, for each day missed, O'Shea said.

If the employees currently have no paid time off or vacation days, Hopkins will "loan" them the time off until they "earn the day back," O'Shea wrote in an email.

"No one needs to lose any dollars," he wrote.

In an interview, O'Shea said this was in line with federal wage and hours laws, and is the same policy used in past situations — such as when some employees arrive at work through inclement weather and others don't.

"I understand there's a distinction, but this is the policy that the [human resources] people are applying to this situation," he said.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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