Union: Registry worker in Boston likely had COVID-19

Agency says illness ‘unconfirmed,’ declined to notify public

THE REGISTRY OF MOTOR VEHICLES shut its Haymarket branch in Boston for the past week after an employee exhibited COVID-19 symptoms, according to union officials.

An official with the National Association of Government Employees, which represents Registry workers, said the employee who was sick had gone to the hospital more than a week before officials abruptly closed the branch on April 3. The employee was told by an emergency room physician that she likely had COVID-19 but was not given a test because she did not qualify under the protocol at the time for symptoms or demographics.

“We notified them on Thursday, (March) 26th, that we believe they had a problem,” said John Mann, president of Unit A of the NAGE. “The employee was diagnosed in the emergency room but couldn’t get a test but the doctor told her because of everything she showed, assume she was positive for COVID-19. Based on that, I contacted the RMV to tell them what the story was, and they hadn’t heard anything about it. (The employee) had texted her manager and indicated she was suffering from symptoms consistent with COVID. He texted back and said ‘hope you feel better’ and never reported it up the chain.”

Mann said those texts were turned over to Registry officials but no action was taken.

A spokeswoman for the Registry initially told CommonWealth last week that the office was closed on Friday, April 3, only for the weekend “following unconfirmed reports of an employee with flu-like symptoms.” Judith Reardon Riley said at the time the office would reopen Monday after a thorough cleaning and disinfection “out of an abundance of caution.” Instead, the branch has remained closed all week.

Riley insisted in a subsequent email that the employee’s illness was “unconfirmed” and repeated that the worker only exhibited flu-like symptoms that did not necessitate taking precautions for coronavirus, such as notification of the public or testing. Riley said Haymarket co-workers were told to stay home for two weeks as a precautionary measure and said the branch will reopen Monday with protective plexiglass in place and staff from other branches brought in.

“The Registry is following the guidelines of the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health for social-distancing, enhanced cleaning, and taking other steps to protect the health and safety of staff and the public,” Riley wrote. “The RMV reports workforce information to state officials.”

Mann said Registry officials can call the case unconfirmed because no test was given but only because of testing protocols in place at the time. Mann said agency officials interviewed the woman extensively and were given records from her hospital visit as well. He said the union asked that she be picked up and transported to a testing site because she was too ill to drive herself but Registry officials declined.

“MassDOT (Department of Transportation), for whatever reason, refuses to get involved in the process,” Mann said. “They interviewed my member and asked her detailed questions. The answers would leave no reasonable person with a shadow of a doubt.”

The Registry has closed most satellite offices and AAA has shut down its Registry operations during the pandemic, but seven locations around the state have remained open by appointment only for out-of-state license conversions, car registrations, commercial transactions, and several other items state officials deem essential.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

NAGE officials have called on the Baker administration to close down the remaining offices to protect both workers and customers, insisting most transactions can be done online and those that can’t can wait with extensions being granted. Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack responded in a letter that the agency was essential in allowing commercial transporters to deliver necessary safety materials and enabling residents to get licenses and identification they need for collecting unemployment and health care. She said the union’s concerns about safeguards and safety equipment have been addressed and there is no threat to workers as long as protocols are being followed.

But Mann said that is still not enough. He pointed to an incident in the Plymouth branch this week in which a customer became irate when his transaction was rejected and took off his mask and coughed on the customer service representative. That, he said, was “assault” and an example about how much is out of control of officials in the tense environment. Shutting down offices and granting extensions is the only solution, he said.

“It’s like ‘Field of Dreams,’” Mann said, referencing the baseball movie. “If you build it, they will come. If you open the Registry, they will come.”