Rebecca Brown is a single mother to a 7-year-old son, and a state child protective caseworker who visits homes to investigate reports of abuse or neglect.

When the coronavirus outbreak forced her son’s school to close, Brown had to stay home to care for him. She also has respiratory issues and feared that going out more than necessary would put her and her son at risk.

After working from home to close out her active cases, she planned to apply for expanded Family Medical Leave Act benefits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was meant to protect eligible workers who must care for children. The state even said in a notice April 2 that it would comply with the expansion of benefits, except for “healthcare workers and emergency responders.”

However, in an email sent late Thursday to workers, the list of exempted employees had increased dramatically to include Brown and others like her.

“I think a lot of us felt like we were told those (benefits) would be available so that’s how we planned,” said Brown, who works out of the Department of Health and Human Services office in Portland. “I don’t know what to do. If I have to keep doing my job, that means going out and leaving my child at home. I have to choose between trying to protect someone else’s child or putting my son at risk.”

Brown isn’t alone.

Kaylene Godwin, who also works as a child protection caseworker in Portland, organized a Zoom meeting Thursday afternoon of nearly 40 employees who say they’re in a similar position.

“Employees who have kids at home are really in an impossible spot,” she said. “There is a strange irony of having to neglect our own kids’ needs to continue working.”

Four other caseworkers across the state shared similar stories but asked that their names not be published because they worried it might affect their employment.

Tom Feeley, general counsel for the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989, the union that represents thousands of state workers, said it’s not just child protective caseworkers who are exempt. The categories of employees who are deemed ineligible for seeking FMLA benefits is broad and includes all employees at Dorothea Dix and Riverview, the state’s psychiatric hospitals, and most Department of Corrections employees.

The state has, however, made distinctions between caseworkers in the Office of Child and Family Services and those in the Office of Aging and Disability Services. In aging and disability, only crisis workers are exempt.

“It’s disheartening there isn’t more flexibility around this issue,” Feeley said. “Were not saying (child protection) isn’t vitally important work, but the idea that they shouldn’t be entitled to this federal benefit … it’s a double standard that goes too far.”

DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said Friday that the department views the front-line work of child protective caseworkers as critical during this “unprecedented health crisis.”

“While the majority of our staff are now working remotely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we recognize the challenges our caseworkers face as they fulfill our obligation to continue to investigate reports of abuse and/or neglect,” she said. “We’ve taken steps to support them, including distributing personal protective equipment, facilitating remote connections with children and families, and assisting them with child care options.”

Farwell also said Maine’s share of federal CARES Act funding will help emergency responders, including child welfare staff, pay for child care.

Before most states shut down entirely, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to help provide protections to workers. The bill expanded both the Paid Sick Leave Act and the Family Medical Leave Act for workers who were either forced to quarantine or who were unable to work because their child’s school or daycare was closed because of the coronavirus.

Under the paid sick leave act, employees are eligible to receive two weeks of pay at two-thirds the regular rate, and under family medical leave, workers can be paid up to 10 weeks at two-thirds their regular rate.

An April 2 notice from the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services said the state would start “augmenting paid and family leave policies for state employees effective April 1.”

But the federal law also gave governors broad discretion to define “emergency responders.” In an email to staff on April 15, DAFS Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa referenced the expanded benefits and included a link to a 13-page question-and-answer sheet. In that document, she explains that exemptions include any employee the governor “determines is an emergency responder necessary for Maine’s response to COVID-19.”

Farwell said the state’s classification of child protective caseworkers as emergency responder is consistent with the U.S. Department of Labor’s definition.

Caseworkers said they don’t want to make it harder for workers to respond to reports of abuse or neglect because that need is still critical. They just want more flexibility.

A caseworker in the Portland office said she doesn’t mind being categorized as an emergency responder but said if that’s the case, they should be eligible for hazard pay. She said if workers were offered hazard pay, some like her would be more willing to take shifts and ease pressure on others.

“I don’t have kids, so my life is impacted less,” she said. “I’d be happy to take shifts if I knew I’d be compensated.”

The workload for assessment workers has decreased because in-person visits are being done only for newly opened child abuse and neglect cases. The Press Herald reported this month that the number of daily calls to the state child abuse hotline had fallen 32 percent after Maine schools began closing their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates cautioned that the decline didn’t mean less child abuse was happening, only that fewer people were reporting it.

Brown and Godwin said the state doesn’t even know how many caseworkers might consider applying for the federal benefits. It it’s only 10 percent, or 5 percent, the work wouldn’t be significantly disrupted.

Feeley said the MSEA is still trying to persuade the state to reconsider its stance, but has not had success. During a virtual meeting Friday with Office of Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry, workers pressed him about options.

Feeley said some workers left feeling like they’d be better off quitting and applying for unemployment.

“This is a historically understaffed department that has only recently been staffed up by this administration,” he said, referring to the chronic staffing problems and high turnover that persisted throughout much of the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage. “We’re concerned about seeing another exodus.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Maine Office of Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry did not suggest workers should quit and file for unemployment, only that workers felt like that might be their best option.

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