Under Siege by Coronavirus, Tensions Rise Inside North Texas Home for the Disabled

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There are growing concerns inside the Denton State Supported Living Center, hit with the largest cluster of coronavirus infections in Texas, with 50 residents and 25 caregivers sickened so far.

Now, NBC 5 Investigates has learned some workers have balked when ordered to care for those infected residents, fearing they too could get the COVID-19 disease.

We obtained a copy of an internal email where a supervisor threatened punishment for employees who refused to work in the unit that’s caring for those who’ve tested positive.

Some staffers told NBC 5 Investigates that co-workers have been told to resign, or be fired, after they raised personal safety concerns about caring for the infected, including bathing and feeding them.

With dozens of residents and staff sick, there’s mounting tension inside the sprawling, state-run facility that cares for more than 400 disabled adults., many of whom need around-the-clock care.

On Tuesday, a supervisor sent an email to workers, saying in part: “We had a meeting today discussing staff attendance, refusal, walking out, resignation, during this crisis.”

If caregivers refused to work an assigned area, a “written warning will be issued for insubordination,” the emailed memo said.

A second refusal would bring formal punishment, it said, and if “any staff tried to resign due to current coverage issue, or current illness,” they “would never be re-hired. Their names will be submitted to my director as soon as they leave. Please make sure your staff are aware (of) these actions.”

“They’re very angry. They’re upset. They’re scared. They feel administration is treating them bad,” said Francisco Santillan, North Texas organizer for the Texas State Employees Union.

NBC 5 Investigates has been told some workers have been threatened with termination when they refuse to care for the infected.

Their reasons: they don’t want to get sick too, they don’t feel their adequately protected and they’re not trained to deal with such a contagious disease.

“I just hope no one dies. And I hope that they at least admit they need more help to deal with this crisis,” Santillan said of the supervisors.

Several caregivers talked to NBC 5 Investigates about the conditions, but did not want to be identified, fearing they would be punished or fired.

They said when supervisors could not find enough volunteers to care for the sick, they began issuing orders to take the riskier assignment, which includes close-contact care such as bathing, feeding and helping residents go to the bathroom.

One worker, they said, was ordered to take on such duties despite telling her supervisor she was on chemotherapy for cancer—a condition that could make her more susceptible to catching COVID-19.

The order was rescinded when she appealed to a more senior manager.

The email obtained by NBC 5 Investigates offered little sympathy for employees who, because of underlying medical conditions, could be more vulnerable to catching the virus.

“If you have staff presenting (a doctor’s note) stating that they shouldn’t be working in (a) contagious workplace (because of) the risk of being infected… staff should be able to be out 14 days – only – and use their payable time,” it said.

The supervisor’s email to staff does not reflect the policy of the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, which runs the Denton facility, an agency spokeswoman said in a statement.

“We’re doing everything we can to make reasonable accommodations for our staff, especially those with certain health conditions and at higher risk for infection,” she said.

The Health & Human Services Commission also said workers would get the protection they need inside the living center.

Rogge Dunn, a Dallas employment lawyer, said caregivers and managers should work together during such a chaotic time.

“If you all band together and 80 percent of the workforce says, ‘We’re not going anywhere unless we get protective gear,” odds are you’re going to quickly engage in a conversation and we’ll see if there’s a win-win for you and your employer,” Dunn said

He added that there’s “safety in numbers. They can’t fire all of you.”

What no one wants is for things to unravel inside the Denton living center, at a time when caregivers are needed the most to care for the sick and disabled.

The job is hard, the turnover is high, and the state has not set up a way for them to receive extra hazardous duty pay.

But despite the drawbacks, and the unknowns, each worker who agreed to talk to NBC 5 Investigates said they love the people they help at the facility and don’t want to do anything else.

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