Miami workers: City too slow on protecting them in pandemic

In the spring, city workers who fill pot holes, trim trees, cut grass and clean storm drains received bright highlighter-yellow shirts emblazoned with the phrase “practice social distancing.”

Meant to be billboards for the public and reminders for staffers to fight the spread of COVID-19, several workers now grimly laugh at what they see as hypocrisy on their uniform. During summer months when the coronavirus surged through South Florida, several Miami public works employees say they felt their managers were ignoring their pleas to enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks at work.

As a result, several say, at least five and perhaps as many as eight have been infected in situations that might have been prevented.

“They bought us shirts to wear, and we’re not even doing what we’re saying,” one worker said.

Seven workers recently shared their frustrations with the Miami Herald after they felt managers were too slow to respond to employees’ complaints. They spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The most common concern: Scheduling dozens of employees to report to work during the same shifts in a five-day work week places too many people in the same work yard and city vehicles, making social distancing practically impossible. In June and July, public works staffers rode in crews of four or five people per truck. In one case, one full crew of four people who share a vehicle all tested positive, according to workers. One was hospitalized.

Miami city administrators distributed these shirts to workers in the department of resilience and public works earlier in the summer, even as workers complained department leaders were not enforcing social distancing at work and requiring crews of four or five people to ride to job sites in one vehicle.

Only this week did managers change schedules and call for tougher facemask enforcement, though employees are still concerned because the city is not requiring a negative test for people to come back to work. The labor union representing the employees, AFSCME Local 1907, has echoed the concerns over the return-to-work procedure. Union president Sean Moy said requiring at least one negative test would give workers some peace of mind.

“I think that’s the moral thing to do,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Moy commended the city for the recent scheduling and staffing changes that will reduce the number of employees working during each shift. The adjustments mirror measures taken for city parks employees, but the union president said mechanics, electricians and building maintenance staff in the city’s general services administration are still on a normal schedule, and they deserve the same changes.

Other city departments have been hit hard with many employees infected or self-quarantined as they await test results. Among the most impacted: police officers and firefighters, who face greater risk of infection because their jobs put them in close quarters with the public.

The challenge of keeping city services running in the pandemic frames the angst around maintaining a safe workplace for public servants. In the case of public works employees, their exasperation came after the department scaled back operations at the start of the pandemic and then reverted back to business as usual at the start of hurricane season.

The city considers people in this department essential workers. Staffers sleep in fire stations the night before major storms hit so they can immediately go out once the winds die down and clear roads and drains. They take pride in maintaining the city’s public roads and properties, and they want to continue working — they simply want to limit their potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“We want to work, but we want to work safely,” said one employee who has tested positive since giving the Herald an interview in late July. “We don’t know who to else to talk to.”

For two months, about 50 workers congregated in the the department’s yard in Allapattah to check in for work. Workers said even though supervisors distributed multiple masks, enforcement in the workplace was lax. Some staffers flouted social distancing requirements in the yard with uncovered faces, even as politicians wagged their fingers at citizens who were not taking the pandemic seriously, mandated masks in public and fined people for not complying.

Public works staffers interviewed in recent weeks say they’ve otherwise locked down their lives and households to protect themselves. Even though their jobs don’t require close interactions with the public, they fear their workplace.

“There’s plenty of my coworkers who come up to you without a mask,” one employee told the Herald. “It happens without supervisors saying anything.”

Each employee who spoke to the Herald wanted scheduling changes that would reduce the number of people working at one time, which would limit congregation at the city’s public works yard and cut the number of people on crews riding together in trucks. Some said they would feel more comfortable riding in separate vehicles to job sites, a request only some supervisors have been able to accommodate.

Even though several employees say they feel department leaders have not shown enough urgency, top administrators maintained they’ve prioritized employee safety since the first coronavirus infections were confirmed in Miami.

“We are doing well,” said Assistant City Manager Nzeribe “Zerry” Ihekwaba, in an interview Monday. “This has been a challenging period. I think with time, we can always make adjustments as need.”

Ihekwaba touted the department’s protocols for sanitizing trucks, distributing multiple masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment along with sanitizer to employees. The assistant city manager said the schedule and staffing changes should minimize risk as as much as possible.

“The level of service might be impacted, but public safety and the health and wellness of our employees is paramount,” he said.

After a few months and mounting complaints from public works employees, senior city officials on Monday announced altered schedules that reduce the workforce by 50% each day and cut the number of people riding in one crew down to no more than two per vehicle. City Manager Art Noriega said there are not enough city vehicles to allow workers to travel alone.

The announcement came hours before top administrators sat for a scheduled virtual interview with a Herald reporter to discuss several topics, including employees’ COVID-19 concerns.

On Tuesday, one employee said a supervisor referenced the Herald interview in a morning video conference with staff.

“They said there are a lot of eyes on the city right now,” the employee said. “We think that’s good.”

Ihekwaba added that the changes were long-planned.

“No, I think this was all part of the city’s continuity of operations plan that the city had initiated from the onset of COVID-19,” he said.

Before the summer spike, employees warned that without better protocols, the department could see the virus spread among workers.

“Requesting all employees to return to work full time, not maintaining social distancing as they must share trucks, sharing equipment, using the same common areas, etc will greatly increase everyone’s exposure,” wrote one employee in an email to senior city officials in late May.

Even after this week’s adjustments, workers are still perturbed by the city’s policy for returning to work after testing positive. The city’s risk management office said employees who test positive will not work for 14 days after the date of the test. All an employee needs to return to work is clearance from a doctor after a telemed appointment. No negative test is required unless the doctor orders it during the telemed call.

Noriega said the city is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for when people who tested positive can safely be around others.

“Most people do not require testing to decide when they can be around others; however, if your healthcare provider recommends testing, they will let you know when you can resume being around others based on your test results,” reads the CDC website.

The union disagrees and has tried to convince administrators to create a testing center for public employees in hopes they could help front-line workers get faster results. The city refused.

Moy said in a recent meeting with management, officials told him they were working on providing hazard pay for workers. While the workforce appreciates the compensation, Moy said, the higher priority should making sure they don’t get infected.

“How are they going to enjoy hazard pay if they’re not alive?”

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.

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