The Arizona Department of Economic Security announced this morning that it is temporarily closing its Surprise office as a result of the ongoing bedbug infestation. The closure follows Phoenix New Times' reports, based on interviews with employees and DES emails, about the department's failure to adequately treat the infestation and the risk of spreading the dreaded, blood-sucking pests to their developmentally disabled clients.
"The top priority of DES is the health and safety of our staff and clients," Tasya Peterson, spokesperson for DES, said in an emailed statement on Friday. "Out of the abundance of caution, and until these standards are met, this facility will be closed to allow the pest control company to continue treatment of the entire space."
While the satellite office located on 115th Avenue and Bell Road is shut down for treatment, its employees, who are primarily case workers for developmentally disabled individuals, will be able to work from home or at an alternate DES office.
"Employees will continue to be paid for their work time and are not being asked to use annual or sick leave related to this issue while the office is closed," Peterson said.
Earlier this week, New Times spoke to an anonymous employee who alleged that many staff were told they could not work from home unless they used their vacation or sick days to do so, despite the ongoing infestation. New Times first wrote of the infestation after receiving a voicemail from another anonymous employee about the problem on September 13.
The employee, an "at will" case worker who asked to remain nameless out of fear of retaliation from the department, said many of the staff were at risk of quitting because of the conditions, with some scratching their skin to the point of bleeding, and others reportedly stripping before entering their own homes each night to avoid spreading the infestation.
The case workers were particularly concerned about bringing the bugs to their clients and their families, according to the employee. An average case worker can visit anywhere between 80 to 120 clients in a month. Many case workers from the office had begun cancelling or rescheduling visitations, which are often carried out in homes and schools, to prevent exposing clients to the bugs or delaying developmentally disabled individuals’ access to needed services.
Staffers had decried the DES’s “case-by-case” approach to the bedbug problem, with pest control treating contaminated cubicles each night instead of closing the office down for a fumigation once supervisors learned of the infestation on September 10.
It was only the latest concern of workers for the agency, which employs more than 7,000 people and has dozens of offices statewide. In recent months, the DES has faced a slew of accusations about its ability to provide livable working conditions for its staff, which include silencing discussions about pay discrepancies, environmental hazards, and one lawsuit alleging the agency systematically denies caseworkers overtime pay.
Now shut down, the DES office will be closed until September 30. Clients who frequent the office are being asked to visit DES offices located at 8990 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria or 6010 North 57th Drive in Glendale.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.