PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Human Services office in Pawtucket is experiencing a COVID outbreak, with nearly a third of employees there testing positive, Target 12 has learned.
The office is visited by members of the public daily to apply for various government benefits. Despite 28 employees testing positive as of Tuesday, there’s no policy to warn the public of the potential danger. Instead, masking continues to be optional for employees and anyone entering the building.
“Most of them are frontline workers — they interact with the public,” said Rafael Martinez, president of Local 282, a union that represents DHS workers.
Martinez and Matthew Gunnip, president of Local 580, another union, told Target 12 people are offered a mask when they enter the building, but aren’t told anything else.
“Just simply saying, ‘oh here’s a mask if you want one,’ without giving any kind of disclosure that there’s a massive COVID outbreak–that’s not sufficient, that’s not fair, that’s not right,” Gunnip said.
Target 12 has obtained messages between a DHS employee and another state worker, who was recently asked to visit the Pawtucket office to fix a problem.
The worker declined, saying they were told by superiors not to go to the Pawtucket office “due to the COVID cases that occurred this week.”
“So it’s okay for the public to go there, but not another state employee?” Gunnip said.
Jose Garcia, a spokesperson for DHS, told Target 12 in a statement that “customers are encouraged to wear masks,” but did not respond to a question asking whether staff inform people of the outbreak before they enter the building. He said DHS has also made voluntary on-site testing and high-quality masks available to employees.
“The entire Pawtucket regional office and call center was deep-cleaned and fogged over the past weekend,” Garcia added. He said employees who have tested positive are quarantining appropriately and isolating.
Garcia did not respond when asked why state workers are being warned about the Pawtucket office, but the public is not.
Pawtucket City Councilman Clovis Gregor told Target 12 there should be a sign on the door warning people about the outbreak.
“Being offered a mask and not being told what’s going on is not correct,” Gregor said. “You should be able to make an informed decision about whether to enter the office.”
DHS has been plagued by staffing shortages for months, resulting in some Rhode Islanders waiting months to get approval for their applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
Yvette Mendez, who has been the acting director for about two months following Celia Blue’s departure, testified in March that filling vacant jobs is a priority.
In January, Target 12 obtained data showing the number of SNAP recipients statewide dropped since 2020, despite nationwide demand increasing. The discrepancy raised questions about access to food assistance and staffing issues at DHS.
DHS call center data for December showed their phones rang 82,299 times that month. The call center was open a total of 143 hours in December. That averages out to 575 calls each hour the call center was open.
Martinez and Gunnip said this outbreak only makes the monthslong staffing shortage at DHS worse.
“We’re really calling for oversight hearings in the legislature to address these issues of transparency right now,” Gunnip said.
Tolly Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook