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Former Denton living center employees say facility put their health at risk during coronavirus outbreak

Two former employees say they were given a choice to resign or go take care of residents who tested positive for COVID-19.

DENTON, Texas —

Bukola Amodu loved her job working at the Denton State Supported Living Center, caring for the intellectually disabled and medically fragile people.

“We call them individuals,” she said, smiling. “It’s fun working with them.”

But she told WFAA she quit March 27 after a supervisor called her in and told her she was being reassigned to work with residents who had tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, 93 people — 50 residents and 43 staff members — have tested positive for COVID-19. County health officials have tested more than 700 residents and staff members.

Hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities live at the facility. 

An internal email obtained by WFAA shows that staff members who refused to work could be written up. 

Amodu said she is diabetic and has a blood clot in her lungs so she feared contracting the coronavirus. She said her supervisor told her "there was nothing he could do." 

She said she was told that “they selected my name as part of those who would go there to assist the individuals, and I have to go, and if I cannot go I should resign.”

RELATED: Positive COVID-19 cases continue to mount at Denton State Supported Living Center

Amodu is one of two former employees who told WFAA that they were given a choice to resign or be assigned to help take care of residents who had tested positive for COVID-19.

She listed her health conditions in her resignation letter and wrote that she was quitting because the temporary transfer “is detrimental to my health status.”

“I said, ‘I can’t go there,’” Amodu said. “He said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’”

'Reasonable accommodations'

State officials say they have made "reasonable accommodations for our front-line staff." 

Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the state’s living centers, said Amodu “tendered her resignation of her own volition."

“She was not in any way prompted or asked to resign,” Mann said.

Mann said in cases where “employees demonstrated underlying health conditions that could increase their risk of COVID-19, they were given assignments on other homes to reduce their risk of exposure.”

“In some cases, we’ve been able to allow staff to take time or work a more limited schedule," Mann said. "We continue to reiterate this important policy to supervisors, so they can communicate that to all staff.”

The Denton facility has more than 400 residents and more than 1,400 staff.

RELATED: 7 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Denton facility for people with disabilities

A March 31 internal email obtained by WFAA paints a picture of the internal staffing chaos.

The living center manager writes that there was a meeting to discuss “staff attendance, refusal, walking out, resignation during this crisis.” 

The email says that any staff that refused to work in an area when asked by a supervisor would be issued a “written warning for insubordination.”

A disciplinary action notice – which can result in termination -- “will be issued for the second incident,” the email said. It goes on to say that any staff members who tried to resign “would never be rehired.

“If you have staff presenting [a doctor’s] note stating that they shouldn’t be working in [a] contagious workplace... staff should be able to be out for 14 days only and use their payable time,” the email said. 

'Poor management'

Francisco Santillan, a labor organizer with the Texas State Employees Union, said he’s advising employees not to resign because they lose their right to an appeal hearing.

“The staff see it as a threat,” he said of the email. “It’s poor management. These people are scared.”

He said the state should be paying hazard pay for employees of the living center to go work with residents who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Santillan, a former longtime living center employee, said there is housing on the campus of the living center where employees should stay while working with COVID-19 patients.

“I’d be too scared to bring this stuff home to my kids, my loved ones,” he said.

RELATED: Arlington senior living facility upset hospital didn't share COVID-19 test results

In an email, Mann said the agency does not have “statutory authority to compensate employees with hazardous duty pay.” 

The agencies that can legally compensate employees using hazardous duty pay include the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Office of the Attorney General and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, among others.

She also said that the living center has a “very limited capacity on campus to house employees. To date, there have been no requests by staff to use this resource.”

Employee concerns 

Another employee who asked WFAA not to publicly name him told a similar story as Amodu’s.

He said he was called in by the unit director.

“He handed me a piece of paper and a pen [and said] that I should resign if I'm not going to over there,” said the employee, who had worked at the Denton facility only a few months.

He said the unit director told him that they couldn’t find enough volunteers, so he had been chosen. The former employee said he questioned why employees with more tenure and experience were not being selected.

He said his wife has health problems and he could do not endanger her. For a job paying less than $12 an hour, the risk just wasn’t worth it, he said.

The former employee said if he had done it, he would have had to isolate himself from his family to ensure that he did not expose them.

He and Santillan were also critical of how the management of the living center handled the situation in the days leading up to the crisis. They said the state school did not move quickly enough to limit movement and cancel events on the campus.

“The staff relied on the news media to confirm there were cases in the Denton state facility,” the former employee. 

He said he believes if management had been more proactive, the outbreak could have been greatly contained.

He said the management treats the staff as if they are disposable.

The former employee said he enjoyed his time working with the residents of the living center.

“The individuals are amazing,” he said. “They are willing to learn. The individuals, they are not the problem. The top staff, they’re the problem.”

Still Amodu said she would return under the right conditions.

“If there is an opening where there is no COVID individuals, I'm ready to work for them,” she said.

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