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Oklahoma Social Security Employees Suffer Bedbugs, Air Quality Problems

Agency officials plan another effort to eradicate the pests this weekend, but a union demands workers be relocated.

Nearly 50 employees at the Social Security Administration as well as members of the public have been exposed to bedbugs and poor air quality for almost a year and a half at a hearing office in Tulsa, Okla., officials with a union representing administrative law judges said this week.

Reports from the Health and Human Services Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration both confirmed that despite the fact that the Social Security hearing office, which is located in a converted mall at 14002 E. 21st St. in Tulsa, is kept “clean and in good repair,” the office continues to suffer from a nagging bedbug infestation, as well as high levels of carbon dioxide related to the building’s HVAC system.

Last month, OSHA determined the problems constituted “unsafe and unhealthful working conditions,” and gave the agency until Nov. 19 to abate the violations. In a statement, Social Security Administration spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the air quality issues were tied to “humidity/air flow issues during the summer” and have been addressed. Tiggemann said the facility has been treated for bedbugs again following a positive “canine alert” test last month.

But for employees at the facility, who have reported bedbugs as far back as July 2018, that’s not enough. Association of Administrative Law Judges President Melissa McIntosh said her organization is demanding that the agency move employees to another facility.

“Americans should not be exposed to bed bugs when they have a hearing to determine whether or not they’ve been disabled,” she said. “It’s time to move the office. This is a converted mall and, again, we acknowledge that they’ve tried to solve the problem, but it’s not solved. There’s a point where you have to acknowledge that it isn’t working.”

In a statement, Tiggemann said the agency strongly disagrees with the union’s “characterization of the Tulsa Hearing Office as ‘unsafe’ and ‘unhealthy,’” although that language was established by OSHA, not the union. Tiggemann said the bedbug problem is overstated.

“To date since June, in the Tulsa hearing office, only four bedbugs have been found in traps in the office space,” she said. “During the most recent inspection in October, a canine alerted but no actual bedbugs were found. Nevertheless, the space was treated as a result of the canine reaction.”

McIntosh said bedbug infestations are far more disruptive than most other pests, and employees and members of the public bear the brunt of it.

“Staff has taken them home,” she said. “It’s horrible, and very upsetting that they’ve exposed their families to that. It’s very unfortunate, and costly to eliminate them . . . This is a very serious matter that has impacted staff, judges and exposed American citizens, and it needs resolution.”