Last week, an El Paso TV station broke the news: A longtime worker at the city’s state-run psychiatric center had died after being diagnosed with COVID-19. It was, according to the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), the first confirmed death of a state worker from the novel coronavirus. It was also a sad inflection point after labor advocates had spent weeks criticizing the state’s approach to protecting the approximately 328,000 employees who run its agencies and universities.
On March 13, Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide disaster declaration and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work opportunities to employees. But, in practice, the state’s approach over the past month and a half has been lethargic and scattershot, according to Joe Montemayor, organizing coordinator for the TSEU. The term “state employee” may bring to mind the image of well-off bureaucrats, but that’s often inaccurate. Many workers at state-supported living centers—facilities that house Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities—make less than $25,000 a year. And the same goes for many employees still laboring during COVID-19.
While the state has slowly made progress in some areas, Montemayor told the Observer, too many workers are either working with insufficient protections or working in person when they could work remotely. “Every agency has been allowed to essentially make up their own policy with regard to COVID-19, and it’s changing constantly,” Montemayor summarized. “There’s not any leadership from up top that’s creating policies for people to implement across the board. … We’re left fighting all these little battles.”
The most high-profile crisis for state employees has played out at the Denton State Supported Living Center, a campus-like facility that houses nearly 450 residents. To date, 58 staff and 54 residents at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, one of the state’s worst outbreaks. In early April, the Dallas Morning News laid out a troubling timeline of the facility’s response: On March 19, an infection preventionist admonished staff via email for spreading a “rumor” of a positive case. Just a day later, a separate email confirmed that a resident had indeed tested positive, and within a week, there were nearly 40 cases. In late March, a high-ranking administrator told managers that any workers who resigned during COVID-19 would “never be rehired” and any who refused to work in certain areas could be written up for “insubordination,” as reported by USA Today.
Montemayor lamented that the state Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), which runs the state’s 13 supported living centers, didn’t issue clear instructions on emergency and sick leave until April 6. Moreover, despite the national media attention, the approximately 1,400 workers at the Denton facility continue to report insufficient protections. Francisco Santillan, a TSEU organizer who worked at the center until earlier this year, told the Observer that as of last week, most employees still didn’t have N95 masks and workers were being “pulled” from their normal clients to work in the quarantine area, only to return later to working in other parts of the campus—risking COVID-19 spread. Many staff have not been tested, Santillan said, adding that he knew of at least a dozen workers who’d resigned recently from the already understaffed facility. Earlier this month, management at a similar facility in Abilene asked employees to “volunteer” to work in Denton, though no staff from other facilities have actually been deployed to Denton.
HHSC spokesperson Christine Mann denied reports that Denton staff have been rotating between quarantine and non-quarantine areas: “Staff working in homes with COVID-19 positive residents are dedicated to those homes only, using the appropriate personal protective equipment and following all CDC guidelines.” Mann also wrote in an email that “protecting the health and safety of those in our care and our staff is always [HHSC’s] top priority.”
No other supported living center has reported an outbreak as bad as Denton’s, but at least five others—in Abilene, Austin, Brenham, Richmond, and Mexia—have at least one case.
Montemayor pointed to a large group of HHSC employees who should’ve been transitioned to remote work weeks ago: the more than 8,000 workers at offices around the state who determine eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid, and other benefits. Montemayor said most or all eligibility workers—many of whom make less than $30,000 a year—can do their work from home, but the state has dragged its feet and allowed different regional directors to implement different policies. Many are still reporting to work in person today.
A supervisor at one eligibility office told the Observer that as of last week, the agency had slowly moved people to working remotely, though some employees were still working in person and their office was still open to the public—even though in early April, a member of the public who’d been exposed to COVID-19 had entered the office. The supervisor said the office should have been closed to the public weeks ago and staff moved swiftly to working from home. “Why wasn’t anything put in place beforehand?” the supervisor, who asked not to be identified, said. “If you’re not protecting your employees, then you’re saying they’re not valuable.”
Another eligibility worker, who requested anonymity, said that at a northeast Houston office, employees were exposed to a co-worker with COVID-19 on March 20—a fact that staff were not informed of until the afternoon of March 30. Only after that happened were most staff given the chance to work from home, the employee said.
Mann, the HHSC spokesperson, said that “all employees who may have had [COVID-19] exposure are notified as soon as possible” and, currently, about two-thirds of eligibility staff are teleworking. She noted that one holdup was providing laptops, but the agency has acquired and is in the process of deploying some 5,000 devices. Mann added that offices remain open to the public because, while the agency is urging Texans to apply virtually, “there are individuals that do not have access to a computer.”
Montemayor also cited parole officers, who, he said, were not allowed to wear masks and gloves during in-person orientations or drug tests until April 4. (A Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson said he did not know the exact date of the policy change but that it coincided with CDC guidance.) Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the correction officers’ union in Texas, also complained about what he called a “reactive” approach in Texas prisons of only doing partial lockdowns when positive cases emerge. Ormsby’s calling for a total proactive lockdown—a move that would dramatically restrict inmates’ freedom of movement. There are now more than 200 cases among staff and more than 450 among inmates in Texas prisons.
Policies have varied as well among libraries at the state’s universities. While the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, for example, have closed their libraries, Texas State and the University of North Texas have kept libraries open with some limitations. One Texas State librarian, who asked not to be named, told the Observer that students are still gathering at the Alkek Library, and often ignoring social distancing requirements, even though classes have all gone online. The librarian pointed to guidance from the American Library Association that recommends all facilities be closed to the public. “Librarians are able to provide reference and support virtually; there’s no reason to be a public gathering place right now,” the librarian said.
Ken Pierce, vice president of the university’s information technology division, which oversees the library, said that around 125 students are entering the library per day, along with some library staff and construction and maintenance workers. Pierce claimed the library is enforcing social distancing. He said Alkek Library is being kept open as a resource for students in “different and difficult situations,” but he does not believe staff or patrons are being put “at additional risk.”
On March 25, Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear in a press release that counties and cities cannot restrict state employees from traveling to and from work—meaning that however thorough a local shelter-in-place order might be, its effectiveness can be undermined by a devil-may-care state. Montemayor said the difference between the state’s approach and that of counties like Travis and Dallas has been “night and day.”
The state’s uneven approach to its own employees’ safety exemplifies the governor’s equivocal approach to the coronavirus crisis, during which he’s sometimes displayed a newfound deference toward local control while, at other times, preempting local safety measures—all in a general effort to walk a tightrope between angering his far-right “reopen Texas” base and, on the other hand, essentially committing mass murder. Such inconsistency contradicts the advice of some public health experts. “A patchwork approach to fighting a pandemic is very dangerous,” Jeremy Konyndyk of the Center for Global Development recently told The Atlantic. “It’s a recipe for a response that’s less than the sum of its parts.”
The TSEU has been circulating a letter that demands increased work-from-home opportunities, hazard pay for all employees who must continue to work normally, and more-transparent communication with workers. The letter’s been signed by at least five state senators and 66 state representatives. Meanwhile, Governor Abbott has assembled a so-called strike force of corporate bigwigs to start reopening the Texas economy—which would make Texas one of the earliest states to take such a risk. No worker or labor advocate is serving on said strike force.
Long term, Montemayor said he’s worried about the state itself. In 2018, Texas agencies saw a greater turnover rate than in the previous five years—a trend likely accelerating as underpaid state employees are asked to risk their health to work. “I’m worried about the state continuing to function well; we care about these services,” Montemayor said.
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