February 22, 2021
Kecia Burnett, Director
Essex County Division of Family Assistance and Benefits
320-321 University Avenue
Newark, NJ, 07102
Re: Step II Class Action Contractual Grievance
Perilously-Precipitous 3/1/21 Return to 5/5 Work Schedule
Article XXV. Non-Discrimination
Article XLIX. Safety of Staff
Dear Ms. Burnett:
CWA Local 1081 submits this Step II Class Action Contractual Grievance on behalf of all of our Union’s members assigned to work within the County-owned 320-321 University Avenue, Newark buildings, as well as the County-owned 50 South Clinton Street, East Orange site, to protest the myopic and perilously-precipitous managerial-mandate that all of our Union’s members shall be compelled to abandon the current three-day per week at home and two-day per week onsite rotation plan (3/2) to a five-day per week onsite schedule (5/5) effective March 1, 2021:
1. Within 321 University Avenue, upon the second floor alone, there will approximately two-hundred (200) employees crammed together while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on if the current 3/2 schedule is abandoned.
2. As of Friday, Essex County still leads the state in cumulative, confirmed deaths linked to the virus, with 2,364. The county has the second-highest number of cumulative COVID-19 cases with 64,993, behind only Bergen County.
3. The New Jersey Department of Health's most recent "COVID-19 Activity Level Report," which is issued weekly, says Essex County is still in the "red zone" for its coronavirus case rate.
4. The "red zone" means the daily new COVID-19 virus case rate, per 100,000 people, is "very high" currently in eleven (11) counties. That means they exceed 25 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day average.
5. There have been approximately seventy (70) COVID-19 positive cases so far within DFAB, with a reported three (3) deaths of employees. That mind-numbing number represents approximately ten percent (10%) of DFAB’s entire workforce having contracted the dreaded disease and that has been primarily while the 3/2 schedule has been in place.
6. "When it is high risk, there are some recommendations that we make together with local school boards," said Edward Lifshitz, medical director for the New Jersey state Department of Health. Indeed, a number of school districts have shifted to remote instruction as the numbers have risen.
7. Essex County reported 65,194 cumulative COVID-19 cases on Feb. 19, up from 63,352 on Feb. 12, a 2.9 percent increase.
8. Newark has suffered 29,797 cases and 855 deaths, to date (population: 282,011).
9. As the result of CWA Local 1081’s complaint of July 30, 2021 about the unsafe conditions within the University Avenue buildings, and the follow-up inspections of the site conducted by a PEOSH Compliance Officer, there had not been concocted nor provided our Union an official Emergency Evacuation Plan for the University Avenue buildings until relatively recently.
10. The Emergency Evacuation Plan should have been in place and available before the applicable employees of the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits-Formerly Division of Welfare (DFAB) were moved into the site within May 2020. In fact, said Plan should have been provided the City of Newark by the County before the former provided the latter a Certificate of Occupancy.
11. While the County received a number of extensions from PEOSH to install and test an emergency evacuation alarm system, the most recent until February 15, 2021, to the best of our Union’s knowledge no such system has been installed which will thus render all employees returning on March 1, 2021 vulnerable to injury and/or death in the case of a major event such as a fire, just have been so rendered all employees who have been reported to the worksite on the 3/2 rotation schedule and those already directed to work a 5/5 schedule.
12. Mandatory COVID-19 testing has been discontinued by the County for employees of DFAB assigned to work within the University Avenue buildings even as new positive test results for employees continue to “flourish” therein where the vast majority of positive cases have been detected one as recently as last week, a situation which logically will become exacerbated with many more positive cases emerging were the March 1, 2021 return date to be effectuated. However, many of such prospective positive cases may well not be detected, especially if the employee is asymptomatic, without testing by the County.
13. Most DFAB employees with children in K through eighth grade will be forced to either pay for childcare with no remuneration from the County anymore, use all of their accrued agency time or resign from their position with DFAB to care for their children. For example, Newark schools won’t return to in-class instruction until at least April 2021, and probably beyond, and Belleville schools until May 2021.
14. CWA Local 1081’s attached letter of December 18, 2020 written Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo in which our Union asserted, “CWA Local 1081 respectfully submits this request you approve the equitable prioritization of employees of the Essex County Division of Family Assistance and Benefits-Division of Welfare to receive the COVID vaccine as soon as is possible” never received a reply even though all County Welfare Agency employees are considered to be included within under the 1b category of New Jersey Governor Murphy’s applicable Executive Order and are therefore immediately eligible for vaccinations.
15. Scientists are settling on a road map that can help critical sectors of the economy safely conduct business, from meatpacking plants to financial services, despite the pandemic’s continued spread. After nearly a year of study, the lessons include: Mask-wearing, worker pods and good air flow are much more important than surface cleaning, temperature checks and Plexiglas barriers in places like offices and restaurants. And more public-health experts now advocate wide use of cheap, rapid tests to detect cases quickly, in part because many scientists now think more than 50% of infections are transmitted by people without symptoms.
16. The safety measures have taken on new urgency in recent weeks as new infections, hospitalizations and deaths rise across the U.S. and Europe, and potentially more-transmissible variants of the virus spread around the globe. This phase of the pandemic is prompting a new wave of stay-at-home orders, closures and travel restrictions, important first steps to curbing contagion. Infection-prevention specialists say known strategies for stemming spread should continue to work against the new variants, but that increased adherence is even more important. The much-more dangerous British variant has reportedly already spread throughout New Jersey.
17. The current scientific playbook follows from two of the biggest research insights since the start of the pandemic. First, individuals who aren’t showing symptoms can transmit the virus. While visibly sick people can pass on the virus, data cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 40% to 45% of those infected never develop the symptoms at all. With the aforementioned new viral variants that can transmit more readily, the potential for silent spread is even higher infectious-disease experts have said.
18. Researchers now know that tiny airborne particles known as aerosols play a role in the spread of Covid-19. These can linger in the air and travel beyond six (6) feet. An early hallmark of the pandemic response focused on the risk of transmission through large respiratory droplets that typically travel a few feet and then fall to the ground
19. While the County purchased and installed a slew of Plexiglas barriers within DFAB’s buildings, as well having raised the height of existing cubicles with glass attachments upon their top and purchasing new taller work cubicles, the barriers can be good at preventing larger virus-containing droplets from landing on and infecting healthy individuals. They may offer some protection in shielding workers who have brief face-to-face interactions with many people throughout the workday, such as cashiers and receptionists, some occupational-health experts said. “There seems to be an assumption that particles are going to get stopped by the barriers, which is simply not true,” said Lisa Brosseau, an industrial hygienist and research consultant for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Airborne particles ferrying the virus “really distribute all over the place.”
20. The County sagely followed our Union’s advice it not continue the contract with the firm providing nurses within the entrances to both University Avenue buildings inasmuch as they only worked for the first two hours each morning taking the forehead temperature of entrants to the structures which was not a reliable method to detect the presence of an actual fever.
21. Fresh air and effective filters indoors are important because they can remove virus particles before they have time to infect. As the weather has gotten colder and people headed indoors, the risk of catching Covid-19 is rising. This is why air ventilation and filtration are one of our biggest defenses against the coronavirus this winter. For COVID, those two factors—asymptomatic spread and aerosolization—is what made mask-wearing so essential.
22. Airborne transmission experts recommend that building managers pump in clean, fresh air between three to six times an hour and that they install filters that are proven to effectively trap and remove a substantial number of virus-carrying particles.
23. Scientists say multilayered safety efforts are needed because no single prevention method is 100% effective. Results from lab-based tests can sometimes take days, while results from rapid tests are usually available in less than an hour. As a result, some epidemiologists have been advocating for widespread use of antigen tests to prevent outbreaks, because they are cheaper and don’t require high-tech laboratory equipment to run, meaning they can be deployed in a broader range of settings. The shift toward using frequent, inexpensive and rapid tests on the same people multiple times a week to screen entire populations—instead of one-time tests on individuals who have symptoms—will be important to efficiently break transmission chains, epidemiologists said.
24. Other infectious-disease experts have touted contact tracing to identify and bust clusters of infection. But they say the strategy works best when cases aren’t surging, as they are now. When transmission rates are too high, limiting gatherings, travel and crowding are more effective at denting spread, said Abraar Karan, a global-health physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
25. By sifting through the differences among more than 1,000 viral genomes, Dr. O’Grady and his collaborators found that a particular viral variant was moving through multiple nursing homes in the United Kingdom, among patients and staff, but not among the wider community. The unpublished data suggested that transmission was facilitated by the movement of staff from one facility to another, Dr. O’Grady said. The team relayed the findings to government authorities and advised them to not to transfer staff.
26. DFAB purchased hundreds of laptops, computer pads and cellphones and are distributing them to certain employees in a questionable manner while not explaining to our Union why they would be needed if those employees to whom they were distributed are made to work a 5/5 schedule.
The resolution CWA Local 1081 demonstrably demands to resolve this grievance consists of the following:
1. The County shall withdraw the March 1, 20201 return to work date for all of our Union’s members while maintaining the 3/2 work schedule.
2. In lieu of the above, if necessary, the County shall consider half-day work schedules so as to reduce the density of employees within the buildings at any one time except for employees with childcare issues.
3. The County shall revisit the efficacy of Plexiglas barriers and taller work cubicles.
4. The County shall follow the above cited advice of Dr. O’Grady and restrict staff moving among facilities during the pandemic.
5. The County shall have the ventilation and filtration within all DFAB offices professionally evaluated with CWA Local 1081 volunteering to pay for the inspections, if necessary.
6. The County shall pump in clean, fresh air between three to six times an hour and install filters that are proven to effectively trap and remove a substantial number of virus-carrying particles.
7. The County shall resume COVID-19 testing of DFAB employees using frequent, inexpensive and rapid tests on the same people multiple times a week to screen entire populations.
8. The County shall issue facemasks to all DFAB employees, require their use during work hours and encourage employees to double-mask for additional protection from contracting the COVID-19 virus.
9. The County immediately schedule contractually-requisite Health and Safety and Work Practices meetings with our Union.
10. The County shall purchase more laptops and cellphones and distribute them to all members of CWA Local 1081 to allow them to work from home five days per week.
CWA Local 1081 thanks you, in advance, for your anticipated expeditious cooperation with this most sincere supplication.
David Weiner, President
CWA Local 1081
February 22, 2021