COVID-19 infections are rising again but Anchorage hotels are not giving their employees training or adequate protective equipment and cleaning supplies, a state legislative committee was told July 15.
Marvin Jones of Unite Here – an organization that represents hotel employees – said until recently workers at the Anchorage Hilton were told to use an employee break room in the basement that had no soap dispensers or sanitation equipment.
A better-equipped break room was recently opened on the hotel’s first floor, but employees were still not receiving training on how to deal with COVID-19 exposure, Jones said.
There is also a lack of communication and coordination on when employees can safely work after potential exposure to the virus. Also at the Hilton a video made by an employee of an encounter with a supervisor displayed ample confusion on safe practices.
The audio track was not good but Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anch., said it appeared to show a Hilton manager pressuring an employee to return to work while awaiting the results of COVID-19 exposure.
A serious problem arises in hotels being used to quarantine workers for seafood companies and other industries, but employees are not notified, Jones said.
“Workers are terrified. Part of the hotels are being used for quarantine and for out-of-state workers. Hotel employees don't know which rooms have visitors who are quarantining,” he told the committee.
Also, hotel staff were going into rooms performing routine cleaning without being informed that a guest that tested positive for COVID-19 was staying in the room. That has ended now at the Hilton, Jones said, but it illustrates lack of awareness among management and employees.
Fields said Hilton would be invited to the committee’s next hearing to give its side of the story.
Jones said that at another hotel, Coast International near Ted Stevens International Airport, an employee was exposed to a guest that had tested positive and was not informed for two weeks.
A number of steps should be taken and enforced to increase safety, Jones said.
Facemasks or other protective equipment should be required, and provided in many cases, to employees and guests; employees should be informed immediately when potentially exposed to the virus by another worker or guest, and quarantines should be ordered with paid time-off for employees.
Cleaning should be done more diligently. In a personal survey of local hotels Jones said dirt and grime had not been adequately cleaned, which reduces the effectiveness of disinfectants. No visitors to rooms with quarantined guests should be allowed, and this should be better enforced.
Fields asked Jones if the lack of effective state mandates impedes safety of hotel workers he represents. “Definitely,” Jones said.
Besides hotel workers the hearing provided a platform for officials representing employees at the Department of Corrections, McLaughlin Youth Center, and Alaska Psychiatric Institute. They testified to the state administration’s failure to provide clear guidance and answer basic questions about worker safety during the pandemic, along with a troubling shortage of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
Barry Yabyabin, a juvenile justice officer at McLaughlin, told the committee that for three weeks many employees have brought hand sanitizer and soap from home as some of the facility’s units are completely out. Brad Wilson of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association said many correctional officers face similar troubles accessing personal protective equipment.
Jake Metcalfe of the Alaska State Employees Association – which represents workers at API – said that communications with the state administration about COVID-19 safety has been “practically nonexistent.”
Fields said the Department of Corrections was invited to appear at the State Affairs Committee hearing but declined.
API is managed by Wellpath, a Tennessee-based firm that is one of the nation’s largest for-profit healthcare providers for prisoners. An in-depth article in the New Yorker magazine cited cases from other stated where Wellpath directed correctional officers who test positive to continue working as long as they don’t display symptoms, a policy that goes against the advice of public health experts.
Wellpath was also reported to place inmates who are COVID-19 positive into solitary confinement until in some cases they died. The New Yorker article is “Punishment by Pandemic,” appearing in the magazine’s June 22 issue.
“There’s a lack of communication by the departments and the administration, and they don’t seem to be responding in a meaningful way to questions from workers,” said Rep. Steve Thompson (R-Fairbanks). “We need to make sure people’s concerns are heard and answered.”
Fields said, “State employees are literally being forced to choose between their health and their jobs. This is completely unacceptable. Alaskan workers deserve better.”