NORWALK, Conn. — Ja-Asia Baker is on the frontlines in two terrible ways.
Baker, 42, has the unfortunate distinction of being the first Norwalk Eversource employee to test positive for COVID-19. While he was sick, both his parents were admitted to Norwalk Hospital and diagnosed with the disease. Although initial signs seemed to indicate they’d recover, they both died. He had spoken to his mother, but not his father.
His mother was 75; his father 73. Other family members have since developed COVID-19, and recovered, as Baker has. But on Saturday, an aunt lost her fight with the disease.
“I can’t even put into words what I am feeling. And then boom here’s another one,” he said.
Baker is considered “essential” as an Eversource employee, but Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams contends the corporation isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously enough, and calls the company’s practices “shameful.” Eversource rep Tricia Modifica disputes that but agreed that it’s impossible for the employees to maintain a social distance from each other while they’re repairing underground gas lines.
Baker declined to comment on issues surrounding his job. No one wants COVID-19, he said. Although it didn’t affect his lungs, he did feel like he was dying, on two nights.
‘This is going to kill me’
“I felt like I had the flu, but it was on steroids,” Baker said.
It was a Thursday morning in late March when he developed a fever, and he immediately stopped going to work, he said. “I didn’t go near anybody.”
He called his parents, told them he wasn’t well and promised to get tested for COVID-19 if the fever didn’t break in three days.
That night, he woke up at 4 a.m. with a fever of 104.7 and couldn’t get out of bed. “I told my wife, ‘This is going to kill me, I have to go see my parents,’” he said.
He didn’t know he had COVID-19 and made it as far as his truck to try to see them, but he felt too weak and he thought they were fine, he said. “Plus, like I said, I had been staying away from them.” When his wife went to check on them, both had fevers and appeared sick, so she called 911. They arrived via ambulance at Norwalk Hospital on March 26.
“That night, I spoke to my mom. She sounded normal to me,” Baker said. “…The only news we got about my dad the first night was he’s in bad shape.”
Other people talked to his mother and thought she was fine, he said. But the next day she was on a ventilator. He tried to call his father and instead talked to a unit secretary, who told him, “Your dad’s a tough cookie. He’s holding strong … he’s responsive, he’s eating on his own.”
After that, all the reports about his father were bad. He died on March 30. And though his mother seemed to be improving on the ventilator, she died two days later.
No one told her that her husband of 40 years, Gilbert Baker, had passed away, of course, Ja-Asia Baker said. But, “I really believe that she felt it, and she went, too.”
Baker said he had a fever for 11 days, despite taking Tylenol. It never went above 104.7. He never developed respiratory symptoms, which amazed his doctor, he said.
He hasn’t returned to work yet as he’s out on bereavement leave.
“I can’t even put into words what I’m feeling,” he said. He had talked to his mother every day; his father had some dementia so there were no phone calls, but he took him out to do errands, every day.
“My dad was very tough but fair, very prideful, and both of them my parents gave us a really good life,” he said. “We were some spoiled kids. But there were some things that he wouldn’t go for, that’s how we were raised. But they gave us a good life.”
“I am concerned about how Eversource has treated the ‘street guys’ with this coronavirus. I think it’s awful the way they treated these guys,” Penn-Williams said following Gilbert Baker’s death on March 30.
Her husband, who works at the Eversource facility on Harbor Avenue, had gotten a phone call from a co-worker who tested positive, she said. She maintained that her husband and his coworkers had to get a doctor’s note to stay home from work, which she called “crazy.”
“If the employee has not had any exposure (either at work or personally) and is not showing any related symptoms/sick we expect them to be at work. We have asked employees to provide a doctor’s note for any pre-existing conditions where their doctor has assessed that they quarantine,” Eversource media spokesperson Mitch Gross said on March 27.
Penn-Williams called it “shameful” that employees who hadn’t felt well had been waiting for tests while working side-by-side in the building.
Three workers had COVID-19, she said on April 14. Ja-Asia Baker had lost both his parents and another of the three had lost a brother, who lived in another state.
But their manager never called to express concern for their well-being, according to Penn-Williams. Instead, the workers were alone sitting in trucks outside their facility between calls, as an attempt at physical distancing. They had only been given masks and gloves a few days earlier.
“Not one thing did they do,” Penn-Williams said. “It’s a hotspot down here and they don’t understand it.” She alleged that the workers’ manager had told them not to believe the “hype.”
“Our Norwalk work center and vehicles there have been deep cleaned and undergone additional electrostatic cleaning in accordance with our protocols,” Gross said on March 27.
Modifica on April 17 reminded NancyOnNorwalk that early in the American COVID-19 crisis, the guidance had been that only healthcare workers and people who were infected should wear masks. The revelation that some carriers are asymptomatic came later, resulting in the new guideline that called for everyone to wear masks in public.
“The manager communicated the company’s policy while operating under our COVID-19 pandemic plan,” Modifica wrote.
“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security deemed natural gas, electric, and water utility workers as essential critical infrastructure workers. Since our employees fall under this category, they’re doing essential compliance work during this pandemic – things like leak patrols, hazard grade 1 leak repairs, required system maintenance work and responding to hit service calls. To safeguard the health and well-being of our employees we’re following federal, state and company protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including strict social distancing measures and not having employees to gather in their work centers as they usually would. Instead, each morning employees are waiting outside to get their assignment for the day, collecting any necessary equipment and materials and heading to their assigned job site where they spend their 8 hour work shift.
“It’s important to note, this isn’t only the process in Norwalk. We have employees at 14 natural gas area work centers across two states – Connecticut and Massachusetts – where all the employees are doing essential work and following the same process.
“We’re proud of the way our company is able to work through this unprecedented time. Working under our COVID-19 pandemic plan, taking measures to safeguard employees to ensure their health and well-being, we’re able to have employees continue to work so we don’t have to consider layoffs or furloughs.”
Eversource had a total of four Norwalk employees who tested positive for COVID-19, three of them at the Harbor Avenue facility, Modifica said. “Considering the high number of cases in that community, our numbers show our social distancing and pandemic protocols are working to minimize the spread of COVID-19.”
NancyOnNorwalk reached out to Gross on April 13 and identified Penn-Williams as the person who was alleging a lack of care for employees. The result was a phone call to Keith Williams from a union leader who asked why his wife was talking to a reporter, according to Penn-Williams, who contends that all three workers contracted COVID-19 while on the job.
“Who the hell do they think they are?” Penn-Williams asked “They will not bully me. They better watch what they’re doing. They are not going to bully me and they certainly are not going to bully my husband.”
Keith Williams had been asked what he wanted, Penn-Williams said.
“I want them to make sure the employees down here are protected,” Penn-Williams said. “Fairfield County makes all the money for the company. They should be rolling the red carpet out for these guys down here.”
Modifica called the comments “disappointing.” The workers are “essential” and Eversource is doing everything it can, she said.
Baker said he’s going back to work Tuesday. He doesn’t know how he got infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“My movement doesn’t change very much. I’m work/home, work/home,” he said. “I mean, go somewhere and grab a bite to eat or something, that’s normal. I work second shift. So sometimes at night I have two coworkers with me… sometimes we go someplace to eat, but outside of that, my routine didn’t change.”
His sister caught it, and his nephew had COVID-19 but is still bouncing around like a 3-year-old should, he said. His uncle and his wife also tested positive. His sister is negative now and so is his uncle, but on Saturday his aunt, Flossy Williams, died of the disease that day.
“It hit us pretty hard,” Baker said.
As for his co-workers, “We were all in the office together the day prior to me getting a fever,” he said. “I got quarantined. None of them tested positive.”
Some people still aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously, like the woman in the supermarket this week who was so close you’d think she was his wife, he said. But, “It seems like it depends on who it is and you never know what it’s going to do to you until you get it. … Don’t get it,” he said.
“I guess I didn’t get the worst of it obviously but what I had was bad enough for me,” Baker said, recalling that when he was watching the news about an epidemic in China, “I didn’t think for a minute it would come to my family like this. Not for a minute. And even when my parents went to the hospital, there was no doubt in my mind they were coming home. I never thought they were in jeopardy at all.”