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Probation officer seeks telework due to COVID-19 risk

Senior Maui officer exposed to virus, tests negative so far

A plexiglass type divider is placed on a table where probation officers interview clients at their Kahului office.

A senior probation officer, who was exposed to COVID-19 at work, is hoping the state Judiciary reexamines options for officers to work from home and to limit the number of workers in the Kahului office.

“What I like to see is a cohesive plan that minimizes the risk of exposure to us and the community. And I would imagine that would include telework or shift work or a combination,” said Timothy Stillman on Tuesday afternoon as he continued to quarantine at home, even after his COVID-19 test turned up negative Saturday. 

“As the safety trainer in the office, I take this responsibility very seriously,” said Stillman, one of two certified officer safety trainers for 2nd Circuit Court employees.

The trainers offer instruction in safety, de-escalation and personal physical defense strategies and monitor the office environment.

“I don’t want my officers in any danger, period,” he said. “Our employer is placing lives at risk literally.”

Even prior to his exposure, Stillman had been concerned about the COVID-19 risks. He wrote a letter on Aug. 4, signed by most of his co-workers, asking the 2nd Circuit Court to allow them to telework again, as was allowed from March to May.

The request was not granted.

He also reached out to his union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, but says he did not receive help.

“The population we serve represents a significant risk of exposure as it is largely comprised of individuals not likely adherent to social distancing guidelines or PPE standards (e.g. active substance abusers, homeless individuals, mentally ill clients),” Stillman said in the letter.

“Not only is the health and safety of our staff compromised by the exposure we face at work, but for those of us who are parents and caregivers, the health and safety of our families and loved ones is being jeopardized every day as well.” 

Prevention measures provided included cleaning supplies, plexiglass dividers that separate clients and workers and a thermal screening device that was finally installed the day after Stillman got tested. There is a mask-wearing mandate, as well.

On July 29, after more than two months of seeing clients in person, officers were given a directive to ask basic health screening questions before allowing people into the office.

HGEA Maui Division Chief Toni Rust said Wednesday afternoon that Adult Client Services union members and the union have “asked and advocated for telework multiple times, and yet the department has denied them and remains unresponsive to HGEA’s continued requests.”

“While we realize and understand that Maui County’s COVID-19 cases are much lower than the current surge on Oahu, we still believe it is prudent for employers to allow telework or staggered shifts to keep the virus under control,” Rust said.

Jan Kagehiro, communications and community relations director for the State Judiciary said Wednesday afternoon that “2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen and his leadership team continuously confer with the Department of Health, while also monitoring case levels in Maui County and the evolving mandates of Gov. Ige and Mayor Victorino.

“Teleworking may be considered again if there is a concerning surge of cases on Maui and the governor and mayor agree that stricter measures need to be implemented,” Kagehiro said.

“I fully recognize and commend the dedication, diligence and hard work that the ACS staff performs daily and the important role that each one provides to ensure the safety and protection of our community,” said Bissen in a statement. “I encourage our staff members to share their concerns or suggestions on how to improve the health and safety protocols and procedures in the department with their supervisor.” 

Kagehiro noted the protections put in place, such providing cleaning supplies, gloves, hand sanitizer and sanitizer dispensers. She also pointed out the free-standing temperature monitoring kiosk, the providing of face shields to be worn in tandem with masks and a COVID-19 advisory sign posted on the office front door.

The Adult Client Services office will soon receive an electrostatic disinfectant backpack and gun sprayer and additional acrylic barriers, Kagehiro said. There are five dedicated work stations for client meetings and “sneeze guards” and 6 feet of space between the client and probation officer.

She also noted a barrier between the probation officer and client during urinalysis. Stillman said it is a plastic shower curtain.

Stillman learned on Aug. 18 that a client he had seen the week before had tested positive for COVID-19. The client was asymptomatic at the time and Stillman had a mask on when talking to the person for 20 to 30 minutes. The client had a handkerchief type face covering, but it kept falling off the person’s nose.

The client actually called Stillman a week later indicating a desire to travel to the Mainland and about the positive test — at the end of the call.

Stillman let his supervisor know and began filling out a questionnaire for the drive thru testing last week at Keopuolani Park. Through a screening process, a doctor determined he should get a test. 

His supervisor said that he didn’t need to get a test and that he should self monitor, Stillman said. If he did get a test, Stillman was told he could stay home while awaiting the results.

He chose to get tested and got the good news Saturday that he was negative. He went back to work Monday but left that day when co-workers advised him to quarantine for 14 days. A COVID-19 hotline offered the same recommendation.

The office has 31 staffers, and the office on average receives 25 to 50 visitors/clients per day. He said there are more cases now than when the work-from-home policy was in place from March 23 to May 18.

“This is the Judiciary, we are supposed to be role models of our community,” Stillman said. “I understand that nothing like this has happened to anybody in this lifetime, nobody knows how to deal with it. But some are dealing with it  better than others.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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