East Hills Business Park call center now says employee lied about testing positive for COVID-19

photo by: Conrad Swanson/Journal-World File Photo

The former General Dynamics call center facility at East Hills Business Park, which is now run by Maximus, is pictured in this file photo from 2017.

One of Lawrence’s largest employers was partially shut down this week after an employee allegedly lied about having contracted the COVID-19 virus, company officials are now reporting.

The call center operator Maximus announced Monday that it was temporarily closing one of its large buildings in the East Hills Business Park because of a positive test result for COVID-19. The company announced, however, that it was keeping its adjacent call center building open, which sparked a flood of concerned comments from employees who were fearful that their workplace also had been contaminated by the virus patient.

But early Wednesday evening, after the Journal-World began making inquires with public health officials about whether the company was doing enough to stop the spread of the virus, the company provided a new statement.

“An employee declared that they were positive for COVID-19,” Lisa Miles, senior vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, said in the written statement. “When the test results were requested, the employee then confessed that they did not have COVID-19.  We are taking disciplinary action for abusing our enhanced paid leave policies that provide employees with continued pay in the event of COVID-19 related absences such as quarantine, care for sick family members, or child care.  This was certainly disappointing to learn in this time of national crisis . . .”

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health director Dan Partridge confirmed Wednesday that his agency had no record of an employee of Maximus having tested positive for the virus.

But the incident highlighted some of the shortcomings of the current virus detection system, and also of the public health law that is designed to slow the spread of the virus.

The Journal-World interviewed Partridge in the afternoon, prior to receiving the statement from Maximus that an employee had lied about the positive test result. Partridge told the Journal-World that, while it did not have a record of a positive test at Maximus, he could not say with confidence that an employee hadn’t tested positive there.

That’s because COVID-19 test results are tracked by where a person lives, not where a person works. For example, if a Johnson County employee worked at Maximus’ Lawrence facility and tested positive for the virus, that positive test result would not show up in Douglas County’s total. It would show up in Johnson County’s total. The Douglas County health department also wouldn’t be responsible for doing any of the follow-up investigative work to determine who that person had been in contact with. The Johnson County health department, in this example, would be responsible for doing that work.

Partridge said he would hope that the Douglas County health department would receive notification from a neighboring health department about any case that had a connection to Douglas County, but he said that process is “not instantaneous.”

The incident also highlighted that public health officials currently are not telling businesses how much to change their operations in order to comply with public health orders related to the virus.

Miles, the Maximus spokesperson, has confirmed the company closed its Noria Road facility in the East Hills Business Park because it believed a worker had tested positive for the virus. She said the company didn’t close the adjacent Greenway Circle building because the company had determined the employee had no impact on the Greenway building.

Maximus employees pushed back hard on that assertion. More than a dozen called the Journal-World explaining how the two buildings were linked. All employees have key cards that allow access to both buildings, employees from both buildings are allowed to use the lunch room in either building, and the company holds monthly customer service meetings in the Greenway building — the building that wasn’t closed — that employees in the Noria building are required to attend.

Several employees told the Journal-World that they desperately wanted a third party, like Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health or the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to make a ruling on whether Maximus was acting safely by allowing the second building to remain open.

“Nobody in the state is concerned about our well-being. People don’t understand why that is not happening,” one employee said, referring to why a third-party inspection of the facility had not happened. The employee, like all who spoke to the Journal-World, requested anonymity because they were concerned about retribution from Maximus.

Partridge confirmed that his agency had received multiple complaints about Maximus but did not ever go to the facility to determine whether it was practicing proper social distancing and sanitation.

The agency doesn’t see that as its role, currently, Partridge said.

“We haven’t seen that our power goes into controlling what businesses do,” Partridge said. “We have seen our power in working at the individual level.”

Partridge said the health department is being aggressive in acting when a Douglas County resident tests positive for the virus.

“You can trust the health department, when we have a positive case, that we will contact that person immediately, get them isolated and understand who their contacts are,” Partridge said.

Partridge said it eventually may become necessary for leaders to get more aggressive in how they deal with businesses who are alleged to be disregarding the order in some manner, including its provisions on social distancing and providing access to hand sanitizers and other such measures. But Partridge said it likely would be the Douglas County sheriff’s office that would take the lead on any such effort. State statute puts enforcement in the hands of the sheriff, but Partridge said the health department could provide technical expertise to assist the sheriff’s department.

“The spirit of all this is to do everything within your power to socially distance and exclude ill employees,” Partridge said. “It comes down to whether this is legally enforceable, or are we just asking people to do the right thing and that is where it stops?”

In a message to employees, Maximus said it plans to reopen the Noria facility on Thursday. The company does customer service work for the federal government, including on Medicaid and Medicare services, which makes it an essential business under the Douglas County health order.

We are taking every precaution to ensure a safe work environment,” Miles said in the statement. “Our facilities team has quadrupled their cleaning efforts. Maximus continues to enforce the recommendations outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and as the CDC provides new recommendations, we will update our procedures accordingly.”

The call center facility at East Hills — previously operated by Vangent and General Dynamics — generally is considered the largest private employer in the county. It often has had between 1,500 and 2,000 employees, depending on the contracts it is servicing.

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