A group of staffers at the city of Vancouver reassigned as a result of COVID-19 voiced alarm over their new roles, which involved cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash without some of the personal protection equipment recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
The city then elected to close most of its public restrooms late Wednesday, which had previously remained open even as other park facilities closed.
It was the latest episode in a period of upheaval linked to the novel coronavirus, during which employers, workers and policymakers are scrambling to assess the scope of the illness — shuttering some public facilities, while retaining those they can safely operate.
That target, too, continues to move, as tightening measures from Gov. Jay Inslee further restrict activity in the state.
“It’s a swiftly changing environment,” said City Manager Eric Holmes on Thursday.
Last week, a team of 16 groundskeepers and maintenance workers employed by the city of Vancouver were moved off their usual routes and reassigned to sterilizing bathrooms in public parks and picking up trash along thoroughfares.
Storme Telford, who has worked for the grounds department for five years, promptly filed formal complaints with City Hall and with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
“We don’t have half of the stuff that the CDC recommends we should have for cleaning bathrooms,” Telford said. “We want people protected. There’s no reason to jeopardize us.”
According to the CDC website, anyone who handles waste or sanitation in a potentially infected area should wear disposable gloves and gowns, and they should have access to hand sanitizer in between chances to wash hands. Managers should also train staff on how to properly use and dispose of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Telford said the grounds staff didn’t have disposable gowns, and that the department had run out of hand sanitizer entirely. She hadn’t been trained in how to handle potentially dangerous waste in years, she said, not since she was first hired.
“There’s a lot of us who live with people who are at risk, like myself,” Telford said. “If we get this because we’re working here and not being given what the government (recommends), is it going to be a work related injury then? It’s just crazy.”
The lack of PPE came down to scarcity, Holmes said, a problem that’s plaguing medical providers and other people working on the front lines to safely contain the virus.
“If it is available, it’s going to the first responders,” Holmes said.
Nick Popravak, a maintenance worker with the grounds department and city employee since 2007, would usually spend his shifts this time of year mowing the lawns at public parks. He said he felt like his supervisors didn’t care about his health.
“Putting myself at risk for greater good is one thing,” Popravak said Wednesday. “But being a grounds maintenance person, I did not sign up to risk my family’s health.”
Popravak said he was also stressed about how effective the groundskeepers could ultimately be in keeping the bathrooms clean and safe for the public to use. They can’t clean them between each use, he pointed out, and there’s no way of knowing if anyone who uses the bathroom might have been infected with COVID-19.
“You are giving them a false sense of safety. The moment we leave those restrooms, they’re just as dirty as they were when we got there,” Popravak said.
Originally, the restrooms remained open even as other park facilities, including playgrounds and picnic shelters, closed to the public. Part of the calculation stemmed from closures of other vital public facilities for people without homes, including the Navigation Center, where some would go to access restrooms.
But as with the Navigation Center, leaders determined that the risk of operating the public restrooms had begun to outweigh the good, especially as the virus continues to spread aggressively through the community.
“We are looking for portable restrooms to see if those are available,” Holmes said.