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Essential employees concerned about lack of protection from COVID-19 at work

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Posted at 12:10 AM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 12:08:49-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As everyone stocks up on cleaning supplies during the COVID-19 crisis, Olivia Blevins keeps her own stash in her trunk.

She hears Governor Northam when he says "stay home," but she cannot do that because she's a nurse who goes into people's homes to provide care.

Currently, she's scared for her health.

"I feel that we are facing a higher risk than some of the other nurses that work in facilities and hospitals," Blevins said.

Blevins said her employer has not provided her with any protective equipment, yet.

She said she asked her employer about N95 masks and they told her they're working to get them for employees soon.

"We are thrown to the wolves, nobody addresses the dangers we put ourselves in to provide care for those in the home," Blevins said.

So, she bought her own gear, but she hasn't been able to get her hands on an N95 mask, which is crucial, because she doesn't have the option to social distance.

"How can you do six feet if you're dealing with a total care person if you have to do their bath change their trachs, whatever they need, suctioning?" Blevins asked.

Blevins is one of many who have reached out to CBS6 who said their jobs are "essential" yet they do not feel their employers are protecting them from the virus.

"That fine line of doing your job and keeping safe, it's a fine line to tread," a man, who works at the Fareva plant in eastern Henrico and asked that we hide his identity, said. "I think everybody is kinda on edge you know, like I said, I don't see any real steps being taken, and the people working there realize it's just business as usual."

He shared pictures with CBS 6 from the cafeteria there that show employees sitting in close proximity and signs suggesting 3 feet of distance, which is 3 feet less than the Governor and health experts suggest.

"I at least want to feel safe that the company is doing what is best for us as their employees the bottom fighters," the man said.

The head of Human Resources a the Henrico Fareva plant, Richard Wong, declined an on camera interview request, but said the company has "taken a lot of precautions to take care of its employees."

Wong said they have changed the way they do breaks to reduce the number of people taking breaks at one time, and that they're using signage to urge employees to respect social spacing, as well as checking all employees temperatures when they arrive at work.

"It's scary every day you kinda come home wondering if you should be around your family, I wish they would be doing more to protect us," the man said.

On Tuesday March 31st just a few days after CBS 6 made a phone call to Fareva, the employee said that they they took steps to make the cafeteria safer for employees.

But employees at other companies said that is not the case.

So what can employees who find themselves in unsafe circumstances do?

Governor Ralph Northam said to speak to your manager first if you don't feel safe, and if that doesn't work, contact Virginia's Occupational Safety and Health Administration office (OSHA).

The state said they are fielding a large number of calls from the public on this issue.

"You can make a complaint and we're taking every complaint very, very seriously and following up with the businesses," Dr. Megan Healy, Chief Workforce Development Adviser to the Governor said.

Still, it remains unclear how much OSHA will be able to do to enforce COVID-19 safety.

"We're waiting for standards to come down to the state. And then our Department of Labor and Industry are going to accept those standards. And then when we have those standards in place around COVID 19, that's when we can actually take a little bit more action," Healy said.

"It's like we are put in a position to do a job, but your job could also be a life or death situation not only for the patient, but for you as well," Olivia Blevins said.

CBS 6 has received an influx of questions from viewers asking if they could be fired for not going to work because they don't feel safe.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Mark Herring said there are state and federal laws that could offer protection to employees, but the easiest way to avoid that is for employers to do the right thing and not fire employees who feel unsafe.