At around 7 a.m. on Monday, the Department of Economic Security employee pulled into work, opened her car door, and met an all-too-familiar sight. There were about a half-dozen office chairs, clustered together in the parking lot outside the building.
The staffer had been with the state's largest agency long enough to know it could only mean one thing: bedbugs.
Earlier this month, the state DES satellite office at 115th Avenue and Bell Road in Surprise had been taken over by bedbugs, and was forced to close down temporarily following Phoenix New Times' reporting on the problem. That office was scheduled to reopen on Monday. But the staffer and the chairs she saw on Monday morning were at a different satellite office — located on West Cholla Street and 19th Avenue. Like at the Surprise office, many of the employees at the Cholla office are caseworkers for individuals with developmental disabilities.
New Times received information about the latest reported infestation from the staffer and two other DES employees, who all requested they remain anonymous out of fear of being fired or demoted. The staffers expressed concern about the office’s laissez-faire handling of the possible infestation, and feel the state agency has failed to learn lessons from recent history — with little regard for its staff and vulnerable clients.
The social-services agency, which employs more than 7,000 people and has dozens of offices throughout the state, recently lost its director, Michael Trailor, who was transferred to work in a different agency by Governor Doug Ducey for reasons that still aren't clear.
Chris Minnick, acting spokesperson for DES, confirmed that the department had received a report of bedbugs at the Cholla office, but said the agency needed more time to investigate the claim. In the meantime, the following is the account of the three anonymous employees, and a harrowing, itchy Monday.
As other employees began to arrive at the office that morning, panic ensued. A printed sign that read, “Do not remove these chairs per HR,” was placed on the quarantined office chairs outside shortly thereafter. Rumors circulated that bedbug exterminators had been sent to the building on Friday night after employees went home.
Staff tried asking security guards who were wheeling employees' office chairs outside what was going on, but the guards told them to ask Human Resources directly, as security was not allowed to answer any questions about the matter. Employees whose chairs sat outside, some of whom had ergonomic seating they needed, were left standing at their desks, worrying that they would spread bugs in their cubicle to newly borrowed chairs.
But staff members' calls to HR were met with conflicting information — one staffer was told there were no bedbugs, another was informed that inspectors had, in fact, found the bugs’ dead bodies on several chairs.
At around 9 a.m. on Monday, HR called the concerned employees into an all-staff meeting at which the acting Director of DES, Dr. Cara Christ, was present, the anonymous employees said. Human Resources staff informed them that exterminators had discovered bedbug carcasses on some of the chairs, but because no live bedbugs had been found, DES employees should remain in the office.
“Dead bugs can’t spread, but their eggs can,” one of the caseworkers said. “I’ve already been through this in other offices — all it takes is one live bedbug, because they can live for a year without food.”
The chairs were merely placed outside out of precaution, HR told the employees, according to the anonymous staffers. Similarly, for the time being, staff were told to practice “bedbug policy” indefinitely.
“I’ve never heard of ‘bedbug policy’ in my life,” said another employee. She’s worked at the department for over two years.
The three employees said that HR told them in the meeting the new “bedbug policy” included the following: All staff should remove their clothes before entering their homes each night and change into new ones. If staff were really feeling uncomfortable, they could wash the clothes they wore to work tonight. When entering client homes, caseworker employees should avoid bringing in laptops, folders, or bags, and should not wear loose clothing, in case their clients had bedbugs. Instead, workers should just bring a piece of paper and pencil to “take notes.”
“It’s ridiculous,” one employee said. “Our laptops have the programs we use to evaluate clients, and the folders contain forms we need to fill out with them while we’re there — we're being asked not to do our jobs. I’m not a biohazard worker; why I am being treated like one?”
Additionally, the employees said that the office had recently changed the dress code for disability caseworkers, forbidding them to wear leggings or jeans most days of the week. “So what are we supposed to do?” the employee said. “Do they want us to start showing up to clients’ homes in our bikinis?”
And the end of the meeting, the employees said, Human Resources reminded the Cholla employees that there was nothing to worry about and to continue work as usual.
“If this was concerning enough for them to move the chairs outside, why not just shut the entire office down for the day and fumigate for contamination?” the first employee said.
At 10:36 a.m. upper-level management followed up with an all-staff email, reviewed by New Times, with the final piece of bedbug protocol — it was a hyperlink to the Centers for Disease Control’s frequently asked questions page on bedbugs.
Another employee said she received a text from her supervisor ahead of the meeting not to come into the office on Monday. She'd been noticing bites on her skin for two weeks.
“I kept telling my husband that I thought our home must have bedbugs, but he kept saying he hadn’t gotten any bites," she said. She received confirmation on Monday, not from upper-level management, but a coworker, of her worst suspicions: Her office chair was one of the quarantined ones outside.
The employee spent the day worried, waiting for her husband to come home to help flip their mattress and see if the bedbugs had spread to their own residence.
“I don’t want to be lied to. If there’s a problem, just freaking tell us there’s a problem,” the employee said. “Now who’s gonna treat my house?”
This third employee, who is also a caseworker, said she’s most concerned about Cholla’s lack of closure because of its potential impact on her developmentally disabled clients, stating she can visit up to three homes in the course of one day.
“I found myself going back over the last few weeks, like, ‘Oh God, who did I see?’” the employee said. “Because it’s not like I knew [the office had bedbugs] until today.
“A lot of these people have vulnerable immune systems — and some of them can’t even move enough to scratch themselves. Imagine having an itch all day and not being able to scratch it.”
The employee said the Cholla office recently had begun to receive hundreds of client cases, along with their printed paper files, from other offices — including the Surprise office that was shut down due to bedbugs.
“And if the bedbugs are in the files, they’re spreading it to us.” the employee said. “And the way they’re asking us to handle it — in a day, you go to a client’s house, you go back to your state vehicle, you drive to the next house, you go back to the office, and then you go home. Am I supposed to change my clothes at every point?”
“And yet they keep saying there’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “As if the chairs just needed some fresh air.”
All three employees expressed frustration at the DES management’s cavalier response. Each stated that Cholla not only needed to be shut down and properly fumigated, but that the agency needed to engage in a more systemic treatment of the bedbug outbreak.
“At this point, they’ve shuffled so many people and cases to so many offices, it’s just spreading,” one of the employees said. “Why not just shut down all of the offices for 24 hours and fumigate them?”
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“We’re in and out of so many client houses, bedbugs are going to be a problem,” another said. The caseworker consequently believes the DES should engage in more preventative measures, like treating offices monthly during off-hours.
Stakes are high for the Cholla employees — two are the primary breadwinners in their families, and all of them said they care about the work they do.
“I love my job; it’s not like I can go work at McDonald’s,” one of the employees said. “But it just kills me — we’re taking care of some of the most vulnerable people in Arizona, but no one’s taking care of us.”
Staff at the DES and Arizona Department of Health Services are scheduled to meet later today to discuss the findings of their investigation and figure out a plan of action for the Cholla office and "other DES offices" that may have bedbugs, according to spokesperson Minnick.