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The Arizona Department of Economic Security in south Phoenix.EXPAND
The Arizona Department of Economic Security in south Phoenix.
Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times

Lawsuit: Arizona's Dept. of Economic Security Is Literally a Toxic Place to Work

Working at the Arizona Department of Economic Security nearly killed employee Coleen McGrain, a new lawsuit alleges.

Now, the Tucson woman is suing the agency and the state for damages, alleging that mold and gas problems in the DES building where she worked, plus a lack of lifesaving equipment on the premises, did lifelong, irreparable damage to her health.

Last June, McGrain collapsed and went into cardiac arrest at the DES satellite office where she worked at the time. There was no automated external defibrillator device, or AED, on the premises to jump-start her heart. Nor was anyone there trained in CPR, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court.

EMTs saved McGrain's life, but despite physical therapy and five months on medical leave, she eventually learned that she would never be able to work again, the lawsuit says. It did not go into more detail about her injuries or share the specific office where McGrain worked.

"Mold and gas-related problems" at that office triggered McGrain's collapse, the suit goes on to say, and those same problems had forced employees to evacuate the building at least four times previously.

The lawsuit claimed that the Department of Economic Security was both negligent and liable, adding that the agency "had a duty to provide adequate medical equipment and to train personnel on the proper use of medical equipment." The location where McGrain worked allegedly had neither, despite the fact that "at least three of its other office locations" had both AEDs and people trained in CPR.

The agency has about 120 locations across Arizona.

The lawsuit also alleged that DES failed in its duty to maintain a safe work environment, claiming that DES knew about the building's mold and gas problems and failed to take care of them — nor did it warn employees. McGrain had a history of cardiac-related problems, the lawsuit claimed, and DES "did nothing to prevent her injuries."

Rod Galarza, who is representing McGrain, said that while hers is currently the only such lawsuit against DES, "there's a potential for others." He declined to answer specific questions, saying he needed his client's permission. He did not respond to a follow-up call by deadline.

McGrain is seeking damages for medical expenses, lost wages, future medical expenses and lost wages, and pain and suffering, in amounts to be determined at trial. She did not respond to a voice message seeking comment.

Brett Bezio, a DES spokesperson, said the agency did not comment on pending litigation. He confirmed that the amount of damages sought was to be determined at trial, per the notice of claim, though he was unable to release the claim by deadline.

The Department of Economic Security is not known for its hygiene. In 2017, employees at its 51st Avenue location in Phoenix reported working amid a mice and rat infestation for at least six months.

It is known, however, for its ex-director Tim Jeffries, who was fired by Governor Doug Ducey in November 2016 after reports in Phoenix New Times and the Arizona Republic about his purge of hundreds of employees he called "bullies," his purchase of alcohol for workers at a Nogales satellite office. He was later found to have been storing an arsenal of 85,000 rounds of ammunition at DES' main office in Phoenix, although an audit later exonerated Jeffries of improperly purchasing the ammo.

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