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BUTNER — Janet Silver’s plea for hazard pay struck a chord with other health care workers attending a rally Wednesday outside Murdoch Developmental Center.
Silver, Shanequa Logan and eight other Murdoch employees stood in the rain for much of the afternoon demanding hazard pay and increased testing for staff and residents at the center, days after one of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19.
Logan said more than 900 workers at facilities operated by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, like Murdoch, signed a petition calling for hazard pay due to the risk they take to come to work.
Logan said they had received no response.
Union member Phyllis Jones delivered a second petition asking for hazard pay and increased testing to facility director Pam Kuhno’s office after the rally. The petition had more than 250 names.
The group shouted “Safe jobs save lives” as they walked to Kuhno’s office.
The demonstration was part of statewide campaign organized by the union.
Murdoch provides long-term care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and other behavioral conditions. It is not a designated facility that treats COVID-19.
A staff member at Murdoch tested positive for COVID-19 on May 7, according to a spokesperson for DHHS. No residents are known to have COVID-19 and the facility is not considered to have an outbreak, defined as two or more cases.
DHHS told the Butner-Creedmoor News this week that workers will qualify for additional pay if a patient or resident — not a worker — tests positive for the virus.
However, many workers at Murdoch, who are members of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, said they are concerned for their safety in part because the center’s residents don’t have to wear masks, even though employees do.
Logan said she felt like her and her coworkers were being punished for doing something wrong.
“Other jobs can get off early and why can’t we do the same?” Logan asked. “We are not being treated as essential employees. We are asked to wear a mask and it makes it hard to breath. We are expected to interact with the individuals in outdoor activities and when it is 80 degrees outside it really makes wearing a mask uncomfortable.”
Silver, a youth program education assistant at the center, said the workers are dealing with a tough situation.
“We are being stressed out and having to deal with people with behavioral issues,” Silver said. “They don’t understand why we are wearing mask.”
“Many of us are worried about taking the coronavirus home to our families,” Silver added. “We feel like we are sacrificial. This is an unusual situation and I feel like we deserve the extra funds.”
DHHS implemented special compensation for qualifying employees on May 1. Health workers in quarantine units and in admissions and screening offices get an extra 25% pay. Health care workers who are treating coronavirus patients in designated units are given 50% extra pay.
The state is also giving 25% extra pay to employees of a facility with at least one confirmed COVID-positive patient or resident, as long as that resident remains there.
State officials said it is taking precautions to prevent the virus from spreading at Murdoch and other facilities.
“Immediate action was taken to reduce the risk of exposure within the facility and communication went out on the same day providing notification to all staff and guardians,” said Kelly Haight Connor, a DHHS spokesperson.
DHHS said its employees and residents are being screened with temperature checks daily. No visitors are allowed at the facility and social distancing rules are in place to prevent co-mingling of residents and staff from different units. The facility is also being disinfected regularly.
“Our first priority is keeping everyone at our facilities safe,” Connor said. “Long before the first positive case in North Carolina, all state operated healthcare facilities took steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 to patients and residents while developing plans to respond if they did develop cases.”
“The safety and wellbeing of those we serve, and our staff, is our top priority,” Connor said.
Some union members said they felt Murdoch workers should have qualified for hazard pay before retail and grocery store employees.
“We are bringing the virus home to our family,” Silver said in a press release. “Not only are we health care workers, we are working with people with behavior issues. We are coming in, dealing with behaviors, and performing our jobs the way we were before. We are wearing masks, stressed out, and dealing with these behaviors. We should have gotten hazard pay first.”