The situation has worsened at the bedbug-infested state Department of Economic Security office in Surprise, according to an employee who described a “pressure cooker” atmosphere in which staff are increasingly subject to psychological turmoil and are at risk of spreading the outbreak to developmentally disabled clients.
Last week, an anonymous caller informed Phoenix New Times that the DES office at 115th Avenue and Bell Road had been infested with bedbugs for weeks, and accused management of failing to treat the problem. DES spokesperson Taysa Peterson confirmed the infestation at the office, which is primarily composed of case workers for the Division of Developmental Disabilities.
On Tuesday, New Times spoke to another employee who said conditions have become increasingly dire, with bedbugs found in six more employee’s cubicles. The case worker's identity was confirmed by New Times but the employee asked to remain anonymous because of the fear of retaliation. The employee, alleged similar negligence on behalf on the department’s leadership, saying that some staff are simply not being notified about bugs in their cubicles at all — they instead find them halfway through their workday.
“They’re sending dogs in each night, to sniff out the bedbugs, and spray them ‘as needed.’ But the problem is, they're laying eggs. So the situation is not being remedied appropriately,” the employee said. “And then for those of us that find them in our cubes, we’re being relocated to other people's cubes. So they're just being spread.”
Peterson confirmed in an emailed statement that on Monday evening an exterminator had found bedbugs in six new cubicles used by staff.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the technician treated all six,” Peterson said. “DES has been in constant communication with the landlord and the pest control vendor to ensure that timely identification and treatment is performed. This process will continue until this situation is fully resolved.”
Staffers have decried the DES’s “case-by-case” approach to the bedbug problem since they became aware of the infestation, the worker said, and have begged management to completely close the office for a week to allow time for a full fumigation that might kill the insects. Currently, staff with infected workspaces are being relocated to other parts of the building, or to other offices, according to the employee, Peterson, and emails from upper level staff reviewed by New Times. But many offices are full, the employee said, or are fearful about the infestation coming to their own buildings.
Despite this, employees are unable to work from home.
“If we want to work from home, we have to use our sick or vacation time in order to do that,” the employee said. “They're not even willing to pay us out for their mistakes and their problems.”
Employees need a key fob to access the DES’s online system used for tracking case work — management has told case workers that without this access key, they cannot work remotely. And because there are not enough fobs for every staff member, employees who want to work from home must enter a wait list, or use their own paid time off to escape the bugs.
“Given the circumstances, I feel that that for a week, if you want to work from home you should get the ability to, regardless of how long you've been here,” the employee said. “For the safety of yourself, and the safety of the families you work with.”
The majority of the staff in the Surprise office are case workers — meaning they directly provide service to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, often inside their homes. Though case workers employed by the state are only supposed to have a maximum of 40 clients at a time, reports from dozens of current case workers, advocates who service individuals with developmental disabilities, and a pending lawsuit, suggest that many case workers have over double that amount at a time. Caseworkers infected with bedbugs could have in-person visits with anywhere from 80 to 120 clients in the course of a month.
“Almost all of us that are affected, that work in cubicles, work with vulnerable populations on a daily basis,” the employee said. “We're going into family homes, group homes, adult and children developmental homes, into their day centers and schools — with the possibility of spreading it to them. And it only takes one bedbug to start an infestation."
Many case workers from the office are cancelling or rescheduling visitations to prevent exposing clients to the bugs, according to the employee, delaying developmentally disabled individuals’ access to needed services. Staff are constantly itching within the office, some to the point of breaking skin, and have begun to change their clothes outside before entering their own homes each night.
“A lot of the employees are at the point where they’re getting ready to just walk out of the building. They're getting ready to just quit,” the employee said. “We're having to put our clothes in bags and leave them in our back patios. We're having to put our bags in our garages. We're having strip down before we get into our home, you know? It's an unhealthy, unsafe work environment.”
Case workers employed on the east side of the DES office were first informed of the outbreak on September 10, according to emails sent by upper level management obtained by New Times. But rumors of bedbugs had circulated as far back as two weeks before, as staff from the west side of the office, where the infestation first broke out, began to be transferred over to the east wing when bedbugs were discovered in their cubicle.
After the first notification, a flurry of all-staff emails followed within the week, as management responded to complaints about misinformation and questions about why they were not told about the presence of bedbugs sooner.
Some emails provided ad hoc directives for preventing the spread of the bugs, including, “management is requesting for staff to check all files and work bags before going to any home meetings,” and at one point, advising east side staff, who had become infected, that they could now relocate ... back to the west side of the building.
Employees have been researching alternative bedbug treatments outside work hours, the anonymous DES staffer said, in an attempt to find a solution that avoids harming the families they work with.
"And it seems like nobody's listening,” the staffer said. “We have to get [DES Director] Michael Trailor or [DDD assistant director] James Green ... to see what we're going through to hopefully get some actual results — 'cause this is not working."
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The information about bedbugs comes after New Times spoke with dozens of current employees in the last few months about working conditions at the agency, which employs more than 7,000 people. Almost all insisted they remain anonymous, citing a culture of fear that prevents workers from speaking out about problems within the department, which include overburdened caseloads, wage theft, forbidding workers to discuss pay, and hazardous work conditions.
The next inspection by the pest control vendor will be completed on Thursday night, according to a supervisor's email sent to Surprise staff Tuesday..
“I do not have an update on Laptops or FOB access at the moment,” the supervisor’s email said, “I can tell you the request has been made for each of you just waiting to hear further information.”