Union head: City worker’s virus death traced back to job

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Hal­lie Miller Bal­ti­more Sun reporter Liz Bowie con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

The pres­i­dent of a union rep­re­sent­ing com­mu­nity health nurses in the Bal­ti­more City Depart­ment of Health at­trib­uted a school health aide’s death ear­lier this month to poor work­ing con­di­tions ex­ac­er­bated by the coron­avirus pan­demic.

Wendy Smith, pres­i­dent of Lo­cal 558 of AFSCME Coun­cil 67, said Marchiel McDuffie had ex­pressed fears about re­port­ing to work. The vet­eran health depart­ment em­ployee died Oct. 8 of COVID-19.

The union filed a class ac­tion griev­ance with the city Sept. 8, be­fore McDuffie’s sick­ness, re­lated to work­place safety con­cerns ex­pressed by mem­bers, Smith said, in­clud­ing a short­age of pro­tec­tive equip­ment, in­suf­fi­cient HVAC sys­tems and poor air cir­cu­la­tion in­side the build­ings. Those el­e­ments cre­ated a breed­ing ground for the coron­avirus to spread, Smith said.

“We don’t have what we need,”

Smith said. “Marchiel McDuffie did not have what she needed.”

In a re­sponse to the griev­ance dated Oct. 11, the city said the union’s griev­ance “did not di­rectly cor­re­late the em­ployee’s sug­gested so­lu­tions with the spe­cific ar­ti­cles vi­o­lated,” but man­age­ment would at­tempt to ad­dress the con­cerns as sub­mit­ted, ac­cord­ing to a copy of the de­ci­sion.

Smith de­clined to pro­vide a copy of the full griev­ance.

The Bal­ti­more City Health Depart­ment con­firmed McDuffie’s death on Oct. 9 but did not an­swer ques­tions about where the Bal­ti­more res­i­dent may have con­tracted it.

A depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive said it does not com­ment on union griev­ances.

“All staff are pro­vided PPE in ac­cor­dance with [Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol] guide­lines as needed to com­plete their du­ties,” a Bal­ti­more City Health Depart­ment em­ployee said in a state­ment. “The Health Depart­ment takes its com­mit­ment to keep­ing its em­ploy­ees safe very se­ri­ously, and con­tin­ues to proac­tively as­sess and ad­dress COVID-19 con­cerns among staff.”

Smith said McDuffie and an­other school nurse who went on to test pos­i­tive for COVID-19 and was hos­pi­tal­ized for it re­turned to work at the same learn­ing cen­ter in Septem­ber. Both tested pos­i­tive to­ward the end of the month, she said.

The nurse, who ro­tated among four city schools, has been re­leased from the hos­pi­tal, Smith said. McDuffie worked at el­e­men­tary/mid­dle school in West Bal­ti­more.

“This was 100% work re­lated,” Smith said in an email. “You can’t bring peo­ple to­gether in a pan­demic, with­out the proper per­sonal pro­tec­tion and the proper ven­ti­lat­ing of air. They had count­less in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple in the school build­ings. This did not have to hap­pen. This was ab­so­lutely pre­ventable and pre­dictable.”

Smith said the union would ap­peal the city’s griev­ance re­sponse to the depart­ment head.

On Thurs­day, the Bal­ti­more Teach­ers Union pres­i­dent urged par­ents not to send their chil­dren back when city schools re­open to se­lect groups of stu­dents in Novem­ber, say­ing the schools are not safe for teach­ers and stu­dents. Union lead­er­ship said they had ex­am­ples of sec­re­taries now work­ing in school build­ings who did not have the proper equip­ment to pre­vent in­fec­tion, and they did not trust ad­min­is­tra­tors to keep stu­dents and staff mem­bers safe.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

On Thurs­day, the school sys­tem is­sued a state­ment say­ing it would pro­vide per op­tions for learn­ing to small groups of stu­dents and will give par­ents the op­tion to have their chil­dren con­tinue to learn on­line.

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