SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The Illinois Department of Agriculture instructed 26 inspectors in the Weights and Measures division to return to work on Monday, the same day Governor J.B. Pritzker warned private businesses who reopen too soon that they could “be taking on liability.”
State law requires the Department of Agriculture to inspect gas pumps, small scales, fuel trucks, propane trucks, large scales, grain elevators, warehouse receipts and other measures as a form of consumer protection and safety. Only the gas pump inspectors have been called back to work.
“We’re grabbing a nozzle four times after thousands of people grabbed it days before, and then we go to the next pump to do the same thing,” 15-year veteran inspector Scott Miller said in a phone call on Tuesday.
“If the station has one gas pump with the virus on it, by the time I get done, all pumps have the virus on it,” Miller said. “Even wearing wearing rubber gloves, it’s still on the gloves. So it’s not getting me, but I could be spreading it all across the station. So then, everybody who pulls up at that station has the possibility of getting the virus.”
According to emails obtained by WCIA, Miller is one of several concerned inspectors who fear that without the proper personal protective equipment and training, they could unintentionally act as state-sanctioned super spreaders of COVID-19.
“They gave us no training at all,” he said. “They gave us some CDC guidelines and some YouTube videos.”
Recently, Pritzker has suggested he’s considering ways to start releasing parts of the state from his Stay-at-Home order in an attempt to re-open the economy, but only after the Illinois Department of Public Health reports a steady two-week decline in a variety of Coronavirus risk factors. In the meantime, Pritzker has instructed anxious businesses not to rush to return without a safety plan, due in part to the insurance liability they could incur for putting workers or customers at increased risk of contracting the virus.
“You may have business insurance, but you will be subject to liability,” Pritzker warned companies on Monday, “because it would not surprise me if insurance companies are found to not be required to cover you when you are defying essentially state law, or state executive order.”
Pritzker has also warned businesses who are licensed by the state that the state could permanently revoking their license if they reopen before he says they can.
“The governor is saying not to do this stuff and we’re doing it anyway because we’re out of money,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of local businesses that would like to be able to bend the rules to benefit themselves, but for some reason, you know, they think it’s okay.”
Other office employees at the Department of Agriculture continue to work from home.
“We’re the only ones going back, and we’re the only ones that are bringing in income,” Miller said. “The office help isn’t bringing in income so they are not required to be there.”
As a self-supported bureau, the Weights and Measures division charges commercial businesses for each inspection they perform. The agency is supposed to rely solely on those fees to cover operating expenses.
“We are funded 100% by our fees that we charge businesses,” Miller said. “And we’re out of money. We’re broke.”
According to other several sources who were on a Monday conference call with the Department of Agriculture, the Weights and Measures division is now being bailed out by other bureaus within the agency who are covering their expenses in the interim.
Miller, who state records show earned $71,500 last year, says that while the state executive order technically classified government workers as “essential,” he and his colleagues were considered non-essential by the agency, and were paid to stay home for the last six weeks to avoid contracting or spreading the Coronavirus. The inspectors were still on call to respond to complaints or issues, but Miller says no calls were reported.
When workers reported to their posts for work Monday, they were sent home again because, “they didn’t give us any wipes or hand sanitizer,” Miller said. “We didn’t have the proper PPE.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the workers are still on standby waiting to report for duty. The Department of Agriculture has not yet responded to requests for comment.
“I’m not opposed going back to work,” he said. “I know everybody wants to get going again, but it just seems wrong to listen to the governor’s speeches every day, and we’re going out and doing exactly the opposite of what he says.”
“I think it’s important for the public to know,” Miller said. “And I think it’s important that business owners know what the state is doing to get money.”
On March 20th, Pritzker issued an executive order designed to keep people at home and reduce their risk of contracting or spreading the Coronavirus. and said, “All non-essential businesses must stop operating.”
In the modified executive order Pritzker issued on May 1st, he expanded the state’s definition of essential businesses, but has continued to warn of the consequences that non-essential businesses could face if they opt to open before the state says it’s safe.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers provides the Weights and Measures inspectors with union representation and, according to obtained emails, it raised concerns with the Department of Agriculture about the lack of PPE provided to its members. The IFT has not yet responded to requests for comment.