In the weeks before an outbreak of COVID-19 struck Young Williams Child Support Services, a complaint was filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the call center’s efforts to prevent the virus’s spread.
OSHA, a division of the federal Department of Labor, investigates potential health and safety hazards in the workplace. A complaint emailed to the agency on April 13 alleged, “During this COVID-19 crisis, certain employees are allowed to work from home while about 30% must stay in office and work. HR is handing out Lysol wipes every 3-4 days to wipe off.”
The information was contained in a spreadsheet from the OSHA website listing “closed federal and state plan valid COVID-19 complaints through May 4.” The agency keeps confidential the identity of workers who make complaints.
No further information on the investigation or its outcome is available. An email sent Wednesday to a labor department FOIA officer was not immediately returned.
This week, the Virginia Department of Social Services confirmed that six Young Williams employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. One, Jennifer Horsley, reportedly died Monday.
A former employee shared with the Bulletin a post by an employee who says she is the seventh case and is being isolated at home, but the newspaper has not been able to reach her for verification.
The Virginia Department of Health considers two or more diagnoses in the same location to be an outbreak.
DSS spokesperson Cletisha Lovelace said all Martinsville Young Williams employees have now been given the opportunity to work remotely. As of this week, she said, only nine of the call center’s 130 employees have chosen to continue working on-site, and they are spread throughout the 18,412-square-foot offices located in the Clocktower Building off Commonwealth Boulevard.
“Prior to notification of a positive test result for COVID-19, the call center was actively working to move employees to telework to mitigate the potential for employee exposure,” Lovelace said. “This required some additional time and effort to address technology access and security issues for employees working remotely.
"However, multiple CDC-recommended actions were in place, including masks being made available, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, routine daily cleaning and distancing between workers in large three-sided cubicles with high walls.”
As for those who remain in the office, Young Williams “is working with the remaining nine employees to address their individual circumstances,” Lovelace said. “Social distancing guidelines have been implemented in common areas. The work stations within this facility are large and have high wall stations with glass partitions approximately 5 feet tall between all employees. The facility and workstations exceed the recommendations for distancing, particularly given the number of employees who are teleworking.”
Susan Blankenship was the first Young Williams employee to report a positive test result for COVID-19. She was last in the office on May 1. Since she was diagnosed, Blankenship has been self-isolating at her home in Patrick County. She remains in quarantine, for now, because of a recurring low-grade fever.
Once health officials clear her to return to work again, Blankenship said her plan is “to work from home, now that my employer has equipment available for the workers that have slow internet speed.”
Before her diagnosis, however, she said working from home was not an option because of the lack of high-speed internet in her rural area of Patrick County.
“The requirements for the system that I use in my job, the high-speed internet requires 100 megabytes per second in order to properly run those systems. In Patrick County, where I live, the current speed is only 10 megabytes per second. I can only be upgraded to 15,” Blankenship told the Bulletin in an interview on May 5.
“Therefore, I could not work from home. If I had been able to work from home, I would be doing that, and none of this would be happening.”
Blankenship was tested for COVID-19 at Sovah Health Martinsville on May 2. She was notified of the positive result on the evening of May 4. After hearing the news, Young Williams temporarily closed the office for cleaning and sanitation, officials said.
“Upon notification of a positive test result for COVID-19 by an employee, the center's management immediately contacted all employees and instructed them not to report to work. The call center was officially closed at 8:22 a.m. that day [Tuesday, May 5],” Lovelace said. “All employees who had already arrived were directed to return home. All employees received pay for that day.”
Once employees had left the building, Lovelace said, “Two separate deep cleanings were performed in accordance with CDC guidelines. The janitorial staff cleaned all common area surfaces and workstations. A second vendor performed a thorough deep cleaning throughout the office, to include hard-to-reach areas throughout the building.”
As of May 6 three employees had been diagnosed with the virus.
“All employees in the were emailed a memorandum formally notifying them of the positive test results, explaining the facility sanitation process, and providing them with instructions on how to have tests for COVID-19 ordered by the Virginia Department of Health,” Lovelace said. “Once the call center was notified of additional positive results for COVID-19, a second round of deep cleanings were performed.”
Further details were provided in an email from Young Williams Project Manager Larren Hopkins to the company's Martinsville staff on the night of May 6. Hopkins shared the news of three employees' testing positive and said the last day any of them had been in the office was May 1.
“After we received notice of the first positive test result on Tuesday, May 5th, we immediately closed the site to allow our outside janitorial companies the ability to thoroughly clean the facility,” Hopkins stated in the email.
“This deep clean included the cleaning and sanitization of all common area surfaces and workstations. It also included the application of a top grade disinfectant that was sprayed evenly throughout the office, spreads into hard to reach crevices, and clings to every surface it coats. All cleaning was done according to CDC guidelines.
“In addition to this enhanced cleaning and sanitation, we will offer all employees that are currently not teleworking, the opportunity to telework once we have secured all the necessary technical equipment,” the email stated. “For those who want to continue to work from the office, we have implemented health screening procedures outlined by the Virginia Department of Health.”
Lovelace said all employees returning to work at Young Williams when the office reopened May 6 were asked screening questions about symptoms such as fever and respiratory problems.
“If an employee answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions, they were not permitted inside the facility. Employees permitted into the call center were provided access to masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfectant, and other PPE, as needed,” Lovelace said.