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301 W. Preston Street Building at State Center in Baltimore.

Bedbugs close comptroller’s office in Baltimore

There are bloodsucking parasites lurking on the fourth floor of the Preston Street office of the Maryland comptroller.

And it’s those parasites — bedbugs, specifically — that have caused a great deal of angst among employees and caused the state to close the Baltimore office.

“We are acting out of an abundance of caution and have granted leave to our employees beginning today and lasting through Friday,” said Andrew Friedson, a spokesman for Comptroller Peter Franchot. “We’ve gone above and beyond the protocols here in dealing with the issue and trying to provide a safe work environment.”

Friedson said that means closing the floor and placing 150 workers in the collections and compliance divisions on paid administrative leave while the state Department of General Services, which is responsible for the building, brings in an exterminator.

“We’re the tenants, and they’re the landlord,” Friedson said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of General Services was not immediately able to provide information regarding the extermination efforts.

There are other state agencies in the 15-floor Preston Street building, but it’s not immediately known if there are any bedbug issues in those offices.

Employees in the comptroller’s office said the most recent problems were reported on Sept. 28.

Therese Yewell, a spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, said the agency  immediately called in exterminators upon learning of the problem.

“DGS responded immediately to the Oct 1 complaint by calling in an exterminator to apply chemicals on the 4th floor,” Yewell said.”The chemicals are effective in killing the bed bugs for 6 months.”

Yewell said the issue of bedbugs is relatively new in the last 18-24 months.

The agency does not budget for exterminations and she said it was too soon to know the final costs.

One employee who reported being bitten by the vermin said she believes the problem dates back to July.

The woman, who works in the comptroller’s office, asked not to be identified, saying she feared reprisals. She said that she first noticed bites on her back in July. In another incident in August, she blamed bites on her foot for an allergic reaction that included swelling and made it difficult to wear shoes.

She later saw the bugs in the office and said she called the Department of General Services.

“They ignored it,” the employee said. “They kept telling me to collect bugs and telling me it would cost thousands of dollars.”

Yewell said the employee’s allegations “is not correct.”

About 10 days later, the employee said, she was treated for bedbug bites on her back and a doctor treated her for a rash, prescribing steroids to bring down the swelling.

Friedson confirmed that at least one employee in the office complained about bites and was sent to a doctor.

Larry Chriscoe, president of AFSCME Local 1535, which represents state employees in the city, said he was unaware of the biting report but added that the union is working with the Department of General Services to eradicate the bugs.

Chriscoe said the infestation at the comptroller’s office is not unlike another incident at state offices in the Reisterstown Road Plaza complex earlier this year.

“We’re not there to beat on management,” Chriscoe said. “We’re trying to work with them.”

Friedson confirmed that there were two earlier treatments for the pests and that employees were given at least one other day off — unpaid unless the employees used leave time.

A senior aide to the comptroller said workers were sent home on Oct. 1, the first day officials became aware of a problem.

On Tuesday, there were reports of additional bugs. Friedson said it’s not unusual to need more than one treatment to resolve the issue.

The state Department of General Services has brought in exterminators to the Preston Street office twice since late September, Friedson and Chriscoe said .

A third round of chemicals and steam-cleaning of chairs and other surfaces will begin Wednesday night, according to the comptroller’s office.

Later, the exterminator will use special bedbug-sniffing dogs to confirm the office is free of the insects.

Employees could return to the complex as soon as Monday, Friedson said.