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Union Requests Probe Of Working Conditions At Two Florida Disability Facilities

Sunland Center from the outside
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The Florida Channel
AFSCME, a rank and file union for state employees is asking the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to investigate the working conditions and Sunland Center.

A union that represents rank-and-file state employees is calling for an investigation into working conditions at two state-owned facilities in Northwest Florida that serve people with disabilities. 

AFSCME Florida President Vicki Hall wants the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to investigate Sunland Center and Florida State Hospital and to disclose the findings to employees who work at the facilities. The union is concerned, at least in part, about air-quality issues after the facilities were damaged last year in Hurricane Michael.

“These are hard-working people,” Hall told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. “If you see what they’re working in, it’s disgusting.”

While Hall has not visited Sunland Center in Marianna or Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, she has relied on information from Tallulah Thomas, who is president of the union’s Local 1963 and works for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities at Florida State Hospital as a behavioral program specialist.

In a prepared statement, Thomas described the work conditions for the state employees as “dire.”

“We have employees at Sunland Center that had to seek medical treatment as a result of the ongoing air quality issues at their worksite,” Thomas said. “This is a clear violation of our contract. Our employer has not addressed the health and safety issues with our union.”

Melanie Mowry Etters, an Agency for Persons with Disabilities spokeswoman, released a statement late Tuesday that said the agency has "reached out to AFSCME to share the many steps taken by Sunland to maintain a healthy working environment on its campus." She also said AFSCME "did not ask for any facts" before putting information on its website about seeking an investigation.

"Sunland is moving forward with more in-depth testing of the air quality of campus buildings and is negotiating with another vendor," Etters said. "In an abundance of caution, Sunland has relocated residents and employees to buildings with clear air quality, while also installing air scrubbers and dehumidifiers in occupied buildings that had storm damage.”

Sunland Center is administered by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities whose care is funded through Medicaid. Florida State Hospital treats people with mental illnesses and is administered by the Department of Children and Families. The Florida State Hospital campus also houses the Agency for Persons with Disabilities’ Developmental Disabilities Defendants Program. That program provides a high-security environment for people with disabilities who have run afoul of the law but are considered incompetent and cannot be prosecuted.

The News Service of Florida reported last month that the state moved three Sunland staff members from administrative offices and 27 residents with disabilities into new living spaces following air-sampling test results. 

Marguerite Morgan, superintendent of Sunland Center, sent a letter Sept. 11 to staff members saying that air quality will be an “ongoing priority at Sunland for some time to come.”

Meanwhile recently filed budget documents show that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities is requesting money in the upcoming fiscal year for repairs and maintenance for the Sunland facility, some of which will be used for asbestos abatement to “help reduce the risk of breathing problems in resident homes and the facility.”

State health regulators made an unannounced visit over the summer to Sunland to ferret out complaints made with the Agency for Health Care Administration about the facility.

A June 27 report indicates that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities “failed to make roof repairs” at the so-called East Washington building at Sunland.

The report also indicates that a Sunland maintenance supervisor told AHCA officials that an insurance settlement had been received and that he had submitted requests to start work on the roof. But he had not been given the go-ahead to move ahead, even thought he had “quotes and a roofing company on stand-by to start the repairs.”

AHCA “found the deficiencies to be corrected” on Aug. 15 after noting that an “acceptable plan of correction” had been submitted to the state.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities has compiled a four-page document detailing repairs that need to be made to the facility. The top three priorities are repairing the roof at the East Washington building and testing for mold and asbestos.