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04/27/2020
 
Posted By: Council 93

Just over a month ago, Dave Harnois was working as a Vocational Instructor for the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Disability Services (DDS) providing job and life skills training to some of Massachusetts' most vulnerable citizens. But Harnois' job duties changed in mid-March when the coronavirus began to spread quickly across Massachusetts and the country.

A twenty-one-year veteran employee of DDS, Harnois misses his regular job at the working with DDS clients at the Dighton Redemption Center where he teaches developmentally disabled clients job and life skills to more fully integrate into the community and develop independence through work. But he knows that he is where he is most needed right now, and happy to be helping in any way he can. "When social distancing became the priority the programs we staffed were designated as non-essential and people in jobs like mine were reassigned and became essential overnight," Harnois said. But like all of my members, I'm ready to do whatever we need to do to keep the individuals who rely on us safe."

Harnois' vocational program was abruptly halted last month, as were all programs that brought the 41,000 adults and children served by DDS into the community. Daytrips, vocational training, occupational therapy, job placements, and many other important programs were temporarily suspended to slow the spread of the potentially-deadly virus among the medically fragile populations DDS serves.

Harnois, President of Local 651 and a Council 93 Executive Board Member, has been reassigned to a group home as a Direct Support Worker on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight. He is responsible for assisting the now home-confined clients with daily chores, food preparation, and self-care during this difficult time. Local 651 has approximately 600 members working 24/7 at fifty-three group homes in the DDS Southeast Region which spans from Cape Cod, to Attleboro, and up the South Shore. The suspension of visits from residents' friends and family members has made the job of AFSCME members even more difficult and increased the already heavy reliance that residents have on the staff.

"COVID-19 has made a difficult job that much harder," Harnois commented. "The clients we work with are used to a daily routine and this has totally upended any sense of normalcy. To make matters worse, a lot of them do not understand what is going on and why we can't go out like we used to. It is really hard to explain to someone with disabilities who has worked hard to gain some independence that they no longer have that freedom and it is for their own protection and safety."

The transition has been difficult on Local 651 members as well. "A lot of members are in the same position I am in. They're working in new locations with new duties with different clients all while trying to keep themselves and the clients safe."

As a local president, Harnois has the added responsibility of keeping his members informed of any policy directives from DDS and advocating for the membership with management for the necessary safety procedures and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

"Luckily we have had good communications with DDS management and Department of Public Health Staff throughout this crisis," Harnois said, noting that the daily calls to update union leadership on policies and procedures are put in place for the safety of the clients and membership alike. "They have been open and listening to the concerns of our members who are on the front lines and we have been advocating for our members to get the proper PPE."

Harnois has been thankful for the guidance and assistance Council 93 staff have provided throughout the crisis. "I am trying to keep people positive and upbeat during a stressful time. It helps to let members know that we have our union fighting for us every day. They have been with us since day one to answer any questions or deal with any issues that have arisen. Council 93 has not missed a beat."

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AFSCME Council 93

AFSCME Council 93 represents more than 45,000 state, county and municipal employees in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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