After Paterson school officials ordered maintenance and custodial workers to report to work to allegedly perform non-essential duties in late April, three of them tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Court documents filed by Colin Lynch, attorney for the Paterson Custodial and Maintenance Association, union that represents 90 custodians and maintenance workers in the district, states the workers tested positive on May 14.
School officials opened up testing for the workers earlier in the month. Two thirds of the workers voluntarily agreed to be screened for the virus. Three learned they had the virus on May 17 and 19, according to court filings.
“By virtue of having tested positive for COVID-19 after having returned to work, those employees were working while infected with COVID-19,” said Stephen Graham, a maintenance worker who serves as vice president of the Paterson Custodial and Maintenance Association, in a court certification document. “Due to having reported for work while infected with COVID-19, those employees who tested positive unwittingly exposed any and all other employees, their families, and the general public to the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”
The workers challenged the district’s decision to force them to return to work on April 27. They alleged the district violated New Jersey governor Phil Murphy’s executive orders 104 and 107. The district’s attorney has denied the school system violated regulations by ordering the workers to report to work. The district is arguing all maintenance employees are “essential personnel.”
Mark Blunda, outside counsel for the district, said in court filings, the district spent $200,000 for Covid-19-related equipment and $60,000 on personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure the safety of workers. He also argues the governor issued a new executive order, 142, that allows even non-essential construction projects to resume as of May 18.
Lynch’s filing states those workers, who came in contact with the infected employees, are still being directed to show up for work and are not quarantined.
“The district will not comment on matters that are pending in litigation. However, the district is closely following CDC guidelines in allowing employees to return to work,” said Paul Brubaker, spokesman for the Paterson Public Schools, on Thursday. “If a district employee has symptoms of the COVID-19 virus, or has a family member who has tested positive for the virus, then that employee is instructed to quarantine themselves for 14 days and contact their doctor, as per CDC guidelines.”
The maintenance and custodial workers filed their lawsuit on May 5. Assignment judge Ernest Caposela is seeking the input of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office before deciding on whether to grant the workers’ request for an injunction against the district, according to a May 27 letter exchanged between the lawyers and the court.
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