Cleanup of government offices behind schedule
On July 4, $10 million in CARES Act funding was signed into law by President Jonathan Nez (Resolution CJN-47-20) to ensure that facilities operated by the Navajo Nation were “disinfected and otherwise safe” for returning employees and the public seeking government services.
The “Facility Safety Assurance” funds were allocated to the Division of General Services entrusted with this purpose.
At the time, Speaker Seth Damon said the funds would provide safety assurance “for thousands of Navajo people that are looking to return to a safe workplace.”
While the Navajo Nation executive branch began reopening on Aug. 17, as of last week not a penny of the $10 million for facility safety had been spent.
The Centers for Disease Control guidelines, which the Nation strives to abide by, recommends that businesses evaluate office buildings for COVID-19 safety prior to re-occupancy.
Contracts awaiting approval
In last Friday’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, delegates grilled DGS Division Director Lomardo Aseret about the status of sanitizing government buildings and safety measures such as installation of plexiglass barriers for workers.
“We appropriated these dollars for a reason,” said Delegate Otto Tso. “From the time we allocated those dollars to today is a lot of time. Mr. Aseret, how do we hold you responsible for not spending these dollars? What type of responsibility do you hold to yourself? Would you say, ‘I didn’t spend these dollars, it’s my fault?’”
Aseret deflected most of the questions posed to him to his delegated Facilities Maintenance Supervisor Herman Begay, who explained that a contract for $4 million for cleaning and sanitizing all buildings on the Navajo Nation, including chapters, was being reviewed by the Department of Justice. “We allocated $4 million for the whole reservation,” said Begay. “All buildings will be cleaned and sanitized.”
As soon as the DOJ review is complete and the contract is approved by the president, work will start happening, he said. Begay added that there was a delay with the contract because the Health Command Operations Center had come forward with a bill for almost $1 million for decontamination services already incurred that needed to be paid out of the Facilities Management $10 million budget.
“Just when we had it ready, DOH came in with a bill,” he said.
Work orders required
HEHSC Chairman Daniel Tso asked about the status of plexiglass barriers to protect workers. “Just this week we heard that staff at the Office of the Controller is using shower curtains,” said Tso. Begay said his department has been working with the command center to budget for plexiglass and lumber, but that the installation of protective barriers requires work orders from the offices that need them.
“Everything is based on a work order that comes into us so that we can track all of those requests,” said Aseret. “We are working on this as much as we can.” Begay explained that when work orders are received that triggers an assessment from his department.
Then Facilities Maintenance will fabricate plexiglass and other barriers like walls and doors according to “approved needs.” Begay said in some cases, departments have already begun working with outside companies to order the supplies they need. “Do you think it was a safe or good idea to open up without having these contracts executed?” asked Slater.
Neither Aseret or Begay would provide a direct answer to that question. “In terms of reconfiguration across workplaces, it sounds like not much of that has happened,” said Slater. “I would like to see resources go out as quickly as possible.”
Slater said the Navajo Nation workers are the people “who move the whole government” and if there are any questions about workplace safety, the Council needs to know. “We are working with work orders,” said Begay. “We don’t know what’s out there, what people need, unless they put in a work order.”
Begay said his department doesn’t have many employees and they still have to attend to their other duties. “We also have to do our regular maintenance and repair stuff and, on the side, we’re trying to do plexiglass installation and reconfiguration,” he said.
Processes for chapters unclear
HEHSC Vice Chairman Carl Slater shared that the senior center in Rock Point is closed because of contamination.
“It’s really disconcerting and difficult to explain to our constituents that we’ve set aside funding and ultimately it falls back on underfunded programs to take care of the safety of the facilities,” he said.
Slater said the chapters he’s talked to have indicated they are unaware of what the processes and protocols are and who is responsible for sanitizing and safety measures.
Begay responded that his department has been trying to set up a meeting with the Division of Community Development to assess chapter needs, but that hasn’t happened yet. “We have been unsuccessful,” said Begay. “So far we haven’t set a date yet.”
Begay added that the chapter sanitization and plexiglass work will have to be contracted out once the $4 million is available. “We don’t maintain or repair any chapter buildings,” said Begay. The chapters will need to submit a work order too, he said.
“As soon as we sit down with Dr. Yellowman, we will get with her and see where we need to go,” said Aseret. “Each chapter has their maintenance people and we are willing to assist.”
Otto Tso stated that all 110 chapters need cleaning. “I’m really discouraged and not happy that you haven’t utilized these dollars,” said Tso. “The amount of time that you’ve spent not addressing these issues is really troublesome.”
Delegate Halona asked Begay if there had been any communications with the chapters by Facilities Maintenance. “Did you send a notice out to all the chapters with a procedure they need to follow?” asked Halona.
“No, we haven’t done that, but we’re trying to meet with Community Development for further guidance,” replied Begay.
Halona asked when chapters would be notified that they need to submit a work order for services. “We can start as soon as possible,” said Begay. “We will send out a mass email to everybody that’s involved and once we start receiving work orders, we can be out there to make assessments.”
90% of buildings not yet assessed
Chairman Daniel Tso asked if Facilities Maintenance has been coordinating with Navajo Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding workplace safety assessments. “We do coordinate with Navajo OSHA through (the command center),” said Aseret.
NOSHA, under the Department of Personnel Management, is, in general terms, responsible for providing workers a place of employment free from hazards that can cause death or serious physical harm. Division of General Services Director Perphelia Fowler said that in late July her division and NOSHA were assigned to do safety and compliance “walk-throughs” of government buildings and offices.
“We really look at if personnel are wearing the appropriate PPEs and how the office conditions are,” said Fowler. “As you know, most of our buildings are way outdated, but we’re really focusing on the ventilation or if there are needs for office reconfiguration. We make note of that and the information is forwarded to our division directors.”
Fowler said that their biggest focus has been on buildings that have been compromised by COVID-19 exposure. “As far as NOSHA, we are continuing our walk-throughs and indicating if any plexiglass needs to be installed, but we’re not allowing any cardboards,” she said. “If there are no PPEs worn, we refer them to (the command center).”
NOSHA Program Specialist Walter Hudson said that his department goes by CDC guidelines in reevaluating buildings and workspaces for safety. “We’re very careful on how we render directions according to guidelines,” said Hudson.
He explained that when doing their assessments, they consider whether an office needs reconfiguration to minimize exposure, the flow of customers and visitors, staff education, PPE, temperature screenings, and signage. Employees should be working at least six feet apart, should face away from each other, and plexiglass is recommended as a safety barrier, he said. “We do not recommend cardboards between employees,” said Hudson. “Cardboards you cannot spray and clean. Any type of germs will stick to the cardboards.”
However, Hudson did say that plastic shower curtains and table covers do work as barriers. “You can cut those down to size and place them in-between employees,” he said.
Hudson stressed the importance of good airflow. “The thing I recommend to Facilities Maintenance is that they need to increase air ventilation and also building air circulation,” he said. He advised it’s important to get a deep cleaning if there is a positive COVID-19 case, and recommended two contractors for that, Southern Solutions Environmental and Williams Pro-Clean out of Fort Defiance.
Hudson verbally shared a list of government buildings NOSHA has assessed, including in Chinle Agency, Crownpoint, Fort Defiance and Tuba City. In response, Delegate Slater requested a detailed written report. “I think that the information you’re presenting needs to be quantified,” he said. “We need to know what square footage of the Navajo Nation’s office spaces have been assessed and brought up to code or guidelines and how many employees that represents.”
Slater asked what percentage of employees have had their workspaces brought up to CDC guidelines. “Right now, we do not have percentages until we get all the work orders come in,” responded Aseret. “Once we get all of that and we can start on them, hopefully we can give you correct, up-to-date percentages.”
Hudson estimated that NOSHA has completed assessments for 8% to 10% of Navajo Nation government buildings. “It’s slow for us,” he said.
Daniel Tso asked if Navajo Nation employees who don’t have shower curtains, table covers or plexiglass, can submit work orders directly to Facilities Maintenance, rather than waiting for a program supervisor or division director to do so on their behalf.
“Basically, every Navajo Nation employee can put in a work order and it goes directly to facilities maintenance,” responded Aseret. Begay concurred. “Then an assessment is made, and the work order is given to a technician to initiate,” he said.