State addresses COVID-19 and staffing concerns at Coastal Center

VIDEO: State addresses COVID-19 and staffing concerns at Coastal Center

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - In the days since Live 5 News revealed dozens of COVID-19 cases associated with a center for individuals with intellectual disabilities in Dorchester County, more than 15 workers at the facility have reached out expressing concerns.

They say they are being overworked, underpaid, and possibly facing COVID-19 exposure on the job.

Now, officials with the state agency that operates the Coastal Regional Center on Miles Jamison Road are speaking out to address the issues raised by those employees. The S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs oversees Coastal Center and four other similar facilities in South Carolina.

Facility Administrator Tom McDaniel said residents with COVID-19 are isolated with staff in buildings separate from healthy residents and staff.

He praised the facility’s response to the virus, citing frequent screenings for employees, having an infection control nurse in place, and ensuring that personal protective equipment is being worn by staff members.

McDaniel added that employees in non-coronavirus units who are being diagnosed with COVID-19 might be contracting the virus outside of work and that 24 staff members who had tested positive have returned to work from quarantine.

"We're experiencing an increase in community spread across the local area, the state, and the nation," said McDaniel. "It's highly likely where they're getting it from is community. Community spread. We all face it day in, day out as we live our lives."

After Live 5 News first reported on the positive COVID-19 cases at the Coastal Regional Center, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed the agency is “looking into” DDSN facilities, including two buildings at the Coastal Regional Center.

DHEC has also recently begun including the center in its biweekly reports of coronavirus cases at long-term care facilities. The report on July 29 stated that 39 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 along with 10 residents. One resident with COVID-19 died, according to DHEC’s report.

Local parent Jennifer Barkley said her daughter resides at the Coastal Regional Center and tested positive for the virus. Although Barkley acknowledged that it has been extremely difficult that she has been unable to see her daughter in person, she explained that the facility plays a vital role for her and the community at large.

“It’s hard to really measure other jobs or responsibilities that could be more important than what the staff at Coastal do,” Barkley stated.

She said she understood not being able to see her daughter right now is a measure to keep staff and residents safe.

“You can’t work behind a computer screen to give someone a bath or feed them their dinner,” said Mary Poole, who serves as DDSN’s state director. But that close contact, she said, is what makes the caregivers’ jobs more difficult and risky during a pandemic.

None of the more than 15 workers who contacted Live 5 News would speak on camera, all stating that they fear retribution if they discuss these matters publicly.

Staff members said they were troubled by what they described as a staff shortage at the Coastal Regional Center.

On July 22, DDSN associate state director Rufus Britt wrote that “Coastal Center is not experiencing a staffing shortage at present,” but that there has been an increase in overtime among some staff members as other employees have been quarantining.

However, an internal memo regarding changes in hours and shifts that was issued by McDaniel on July 24 stated in part that the "Coastal Center is currently experiencing an abnormal level of staffing shortages within the Residential Department due to COVID-19 testing and/or quarantine absences."

“There is no contradiction in those statements,” said Poole, noting there were 37 vacancies prior to the pandemic and that they can cover all the necessary shifts using overtime.

Employees were also concerned that some of their colleagues are working 16-hour shifts. McDaniel stated in an email that between 20 and 25 16-hour shifts are occurring weekly.

“The overtimes are occurring to ensure the health, safety, and accountability of our consumers,” said McDaniel, noting that back-to-back 16-hour shifts “are strongly discouraged” and that health staff reporting to work are also utilizing their sick and annual leave time. 24 of the 39 sick employees have completed quarantine, he said.

Another issue raised by staff members was a lack of hazard pay for employees who have not been working in the designated coronavirus units.

“Our policy has been from the get-go that we will give a bonus to folks that are working with positive COVID people,” said Poole. “We have volunteers for that actually who’ve said ‘I’m gonna work with those folks.’” She said they have paid out a lot of money in bonuses for those workers.

The Coastal Regional Center employs more than 350 people in total. A spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation said on July 22 that the agency has not received any coronavirus-related complaints involving the Coastal Regional Center.

In addition to citing issues over the coronavirus at the facility, several employees expressed general concern to Live 5 News over receiving low pay for front-line work at DDSN.

When asked about pay for employees, Poole, whom state filings show earns over $170,000 in total annual compensation, noted that care workers' pay is established by the General Assembly. She said direct support professionals have received an increase in hourly pay in recent years from $9 to $13.

“Is it what they’re worth? Never,” said Poole. “But it’s what we can pay.”

She encouraged employees with any concerns to speak with their supervisors.

She said they've also provided mental health counseling bulletins to employees to pursue help if they aren't comfortable talking to executive staff about coronavirus fears.

DDSN’s FY 2018-2019 accountability report noted in part that “despite improvement from the General Assembly’s second year of generously increasing DSP salaries by $1/hour, Regional Centers still have challenging turnover, particularly at two difficult to staff centers with turnover still well above 40%.”

“We cannot keep good staff without paying them appropriately,” said Barkley, expressing support for the people who care for her daughter. “It’s not right.”

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