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Millwright's daughter tests negative, but policy still unclear for similar cases

Millwright's daughter tests negative, but policy still unclear for similar cases

Westrock pulp and paper mill

WestRock's pulp and paper mill in Longview is pictured in an aerial view in this 2018 TDN file photo. 

After his daughter’s COVID-19 test came back negative, the WestRock millwright who was concerned he might be a coronavirus carrier briefly returned to work Wednesday.

Mike Doherty said his coworkers thanked him for “doing what they said was the right thing” staying home until he was certain he was coronavirus-free. And union officials say his decision to publicly share his story moved mill managers to improve on-site safety precautions.

“I was really actually impressed with the protocols they had put in place and all the levels they were going to keep us separated and keep everything sanitary. They had improved that leaps and bounds since last week,” Doherty said Wednesday.

Yet a big question remains for all workplaces: What is the appropriate way to handle a case like Doherty’s, when workers don’t know if they’ve been exposed while another person’s tests are pending?

There is at least one other unconfirmed report in the community involving a “big box” store worker who continued working despite pending test results for his housemate because he cannot afford to quarantine without pay. The parties in that case could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The state Department of Health offers guidance for responding to several coronavirus-related scenarios in a workplace, including when a worker was potentially exposed to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19. But the agency does not have recommendations on how to treat workers exposed to someone simply awaiting test results, according to a spokeswoman.

Doherty said his family waited eight days for his daughter’s test results, all the while worried they could have been exposed when she had visited them earlier in the month from the Seattle area.

“(Eight days) is a huge amount of time to not know and to be exposing other people possibly,” Doherty said. “If there are no company guidelines or government guidelines, what do you do?”

Doherty told his supervisor about his situation when he found out his daughter had been tested. He expected his boss would send him home. Instead he was sent back to work after a medical exam showed he had no COVID-19 symptoms.

He finished work for the day and decided to use paid sick leave to self-quarantine afterward until his daughter’s test results returned. Doctors told his daughter that her results would be ready within three days of her March 16 test, but she didn’t get her answer until almost a week later.

“As far as I know, the paid sick leave by the state law … covers mental stress or mental sickness or illness along with physical ailments,” Doherty said. “I pretty much told them every step of the way that I was worried sick — and I was.”

Doherty returned to work Wednesday. He shared with his supervisors a copy of his daughter’s test results and a doctor’s note clearing him for work. He also received a medical evaluation from the on-site nurse.

But after about 90 minutes of work, the human resources office sent him home with pay without explanation.

WestRock spokesman John Pensac said he could not comment on Doherty’s case due to privacy reasons. In general, though, the company must verify that any employee returning to work after being out for a medical reason is cleared to work.

“That check point is even more important when dealing with the coronavirus so we can minimize the risk of possible exposure by the rest of our team in the mill,” Pensac said.

The company’s handling of Doherty’s case was one of several union complaints about on-site supervisors mismanaging worker safety during the coronavirus outbreak. Union officials say the TDN article about Doherty prompted the company to take safety more seriously.

For example, workers are staying six feet apart whenever possible on the job. Equipment is wiped down every time someone touches it. And community meals have been discontinued, said union President Scott Tift.

But communication between the company and the union remains disjointed, and the company’s procedure for handling different coronavirus scenarios is still unclear, Tift said.

“They are really not involving us in trying to limit exposure. They are not involving us in the process of trying to make this smoother,” Tift said. So far the union has not seen a well-documented procedure for how the company will respond, he said.

“If people do come down with it, you have to have a policy in place, and everyone has to know that policy,” Tift said. “There is a lot of uncertainty.”

Tift recognized that companies like WestRock are in a challenging position because “nobody knows what to think or what to do. … Nobody knows how to handle this.” The state health department is flooded with information requests, and even then the agency lacks recommendations for every single situation.

At the very least, WestRock should work with the union to find potential solutions, Tift said.

“We are all trying to navigate it the best we can. When we don’t communicate and we don’t work together, things go south.”

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