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At least 20 Maryland MVA workers test positive for coronavirus; 1 has died, union says

Kim Henson didn’t know one of her colleagues at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration in Glen Burnie had contracted the coronavirus until she saw her post about it on Facebook.

Then, last week, Henson, 55, who works in quality control and records, tested positive for COVID-19. In a phone interview from quarantine, she criticized the state agency for failing to protect workers and communicate outbreaks to them and the public.

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“I want people to know that the MVA is not protecting safety of the employees,” said Henson, who has worked at the MVA for 12 years. “People in our areas where we work are being infected and we are not told.”

At least 20 MVA employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and one has died, according to their union, which demanded Wednesday that all locations be closed for deep cleanings, then reopened with rotating shifts and reduced capacity.

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As many as a dozen employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie, along with five confirmed cases in Baltimore City, six in Largo and one in Hagerstown, said AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the largest union for state employees.

An employee at the Largo facility has died, and at least three other employees are currently hospitalized on ventilators, including a cleaner at the Glen Burnie headquarters, the union said.

“These men and women are frontline workers, taking risks to serve the public every day and relying on their state government supervisors to protect them and their customers,” AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said in a statement. “Gov. [Larry] Hogan and the leadership of the Maryland Department of Transportation need to step up and take common sense actions to contain this outbreak.”

MVA staff have been shifted between locations, which the union is concerned will contribute to the spread of the virus, said Wynton Johnson, Council 3 executive board member.

“Hundreds of employees and thousands of members of the public are being placed at risk every day by MDOT’s inaction,” Johnson said in a statement.

The MVA reopened branches and its headquarters to customers by appointment only in June. The agency issued safety kits to employees, performs cleanings each day at branch offices statewide, and requires additional deep cleanings anytime an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, according to MVA spokeswoman Ashley Millner.

“Before reopening in June, each of MDOT MVA’s contracted janitorial companies confirmed ... that they are in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and standards, and that the janitorial supplies being utilized in each MDOT MVA facility are consistent with national health recommendations,” Millner wrote in a statement.

When employees report symptoms or a positive test, the agency’s human resources team asks them whether they have had contact with other employees, and then reaches out to those employees “to discuss their use of [personal protective equipment] and potential contact, without disclosing the impacted employee’s name, and instructs them on the appropriate actions to take,” the MVA spokeswoman wrote.

The state is posting notifications of any positive COVID-19 case in common areas such as break rooms at the affected local branch offices as of Monday. Employees are no longer being shifted between MVA branches, Millner said.

Henson, who has not been into work since testing positive, cautioned anyone visiting an MVA office to make sure they wear their masks and use sanitizer afterward.

About 40-50 people work in her department at MVA’s Glen Burnie headquarters, she said. Employees initially rotated shifts to ensure social distancing — until management installed wooden barriers between their cubicles, where they sit inches from one another, and stopped staggering shifts, she said.

“They put wooden boards in between us," she said. "But when you stand up, I can literally reach out and touch my co-worker. There’s no separation.”

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AFSCME demanded that the state hire “a reputable, licensed deep-cleaning company” to disinfect each facility, then return to operating at 50% capacity, allowing appointments and rotating shifts to maximize social distancing.

The union, which represents more than 30,000 Maryland state government and public higher-education employees, called for “transparency, clarity and specificity” in the state’s communication about infections to allow members to properly protect themselves.

The MVA has coordinated its reopening plans with the state health department, which has “confirmed that [the agency] has taken all steps needed to proactively mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19,” said Millner, the agency’s spokeswoman.

Safety measures such as appointment requirements, plexiglass dividers, temperature screening, social distancing markers and mandatory face coverings will stay in place until further notice, she said.

“The health and safety of our staff and customers will continue to be our main focus as we navigate this pandemic,” Millner wrote. “MDOT MVA will continue to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the union.”

Mildred Womble, executive vice president of AFSCME Local 3655, which represents MVA workers, begged the state to take action during a virtual AFSCME news conference Thursday.

“How many others have to die before MVA does the right thing?" Womble asked. "We want proper safety measures to be put in place. We are begging and pleading.”

State Sen. Joanne C. Benson, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s County, promised the state legislature would investigate the issue and press the Maryland Department of Transportation to respond to the union’s concerns.

“I’m just deeply saddened by the testimony I just heard,” she said during the news conference. “That is just so troubling. ... Please be sure we will not turn a deaf ear.”

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