A local call center is calling out the dogs after a string of bed-bug complaints from employees.

Management plans to hire special bed-bug-detecting canines after workers filed nine public health complaints in the past five weeks against the Alorica call center at 2929 S. Corona St.

Complaints to the Pima County Health Department, obtained by the Arizona Daily Star, include a claim the company tried to hide the problem from employees.

“We have been threatened not to talk about it and are afraid that we will lose our jobs,” an Oct. 11 complaint said. “We find them crawling on our desks,” it added.

A corporate spokesman disputed the claim, saying workers were adequately informed and that Alorica has made extensive efforts to keep the facility free of the blood-sucking pests.

“Contrary to what is alleged, the company proactively addressed these issues,” said Ken Muché, director of global public relations at Alorica headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

A local pest control firm comes in once a month to inspect and treat the facility, he said in an email statement.

A county pest inspector who visited Alorica four times since Sept. 11 didn’t find any bed bugs, which seemed to indicate that eradication efforts were working, the health department reports show.

Management was “aware of the bed-bug issue in this facility,” and was advised to continue pest control efforts “to prevent the potential for reinfestation,” the inspector’s initial report said.

Yet, complaints continued to mount at the health department from workers who said they were bitten at work or feared they might be.

“Bed bugs are visible on the chairs and walls,” an employee reported on Oct. 5. The names of complainants were redacted from the complaint reports the county provided to the Star.

An Oct. 11 complaint said employees “fear for our health and safety. We also fear that we are put into a position to get fired because we are unable to work properly.”

A Sept. 13 complaint said an employee’s house had to be fumigated after the worker unknowingly brought bed bugs home from the workplace.

“They keep having the call center sprayed one room at a time but it is just causing the bugs to move around the building,” the worker’s complaint said.

“Wander and spread”

Experts say the situation illustrates the challenges of battling bed bugs in the workplace, where outbreaks tend to be smaller but more difficult to detect than in private households.

At home, the pests tend to congregate in one or two places, such as a bed or a sofa, making them easier to find and kill.

At work “they tend to wander and spread around the office before anyone is aware of them,” said the website of Larry Pinto, a nationally recognized expert and co-author of the Bed Bug Handbook, an industry bible of sorts.

The bugs hitchhike to the office on the shoes, clothes, purses or backpacks of employees, vendors or visitors but often aren’t noticed right away because they don’t bite at first.

No longer able to feed on sleeping people at night, it takes them several months to adjust to a daytime eating routine, Pinto’s website said.

They can live on cushioned office chairs, in cubicle partitions, and inside electrical outlets under desks, and other sites that keep them close to their food source

Though bed bugs aren’t known to carry diseases, they often cause severe emotional distress, said Dawn Gouge, a professor of public health entomology at the University of Arizona.

“You’re not going to get sick from being bitten,” she said, “but the amount of stress and strain it puts on people’s lives can lead to quite considerable mental health issues.”

Just talking about bed bugs can make people squirm. Gouge said she sees it all the time while teaching classes on the subject at UA. “It will start with one or two people and then everyone’s skin is crawling.”

Bed-bug reports to the county health department have held fairly steady in recent years, in the range of 150 to 200 complaints a year since 2012.

Most are from tenants complaining about rental units, but the department also gets occasional complaints from libraries, hospitals, call centers, movie theaters and other busy public places, said Nicholas Ramirez, an environmental health supervisor.

Most employers are cooperative in addressing problems, he said. If not, the county can take them to court, but that hasn’t proved necessary so far.

STEPPED-UP EFFORTS

Health department reports suggest the problem at Alorica began in August in a section of the building that handles calls for the CVS drugstore chain. Workers there started contacting the health department a month later.

“Management says that they had the place sprayed and that the exterminator said it was an isolated incident, but we find live bed bugs on our desks every morning,” an Oct. 11 complaint said. “This has been going on for at least a couple months.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has a section of its website devoted to bed bugs in the workplace, recommends that employers “alert everyone who works in the building” when a bed bug is found and explain the steps being taken in response.

“This allows them to take additional precautions to protect their homes as well as limiting rumors and speculation,” the EPA said.

Muché, in his statement to the Star, pointed to a recent case as an example of how the company handles sightings.

When “a few” employees reported bed bugs at their workstations in early October, “the issue was proactively discussed with employees in the affected area” and a pest control firm was called in but didn’t find any bugs. The pest control firm’s findings were then posted on company bulletin boards, he said.

Employees who report bed bugs are given two days off with pay and provided free home inspections, Muché said. The company will pay to treat homes for bed bugs unless the problem was pre-existing.

He said Alorica is stepping up its detection efforts with the recent decision to bring in bed-bug-sniffing dogs, which can find what human inspectors might miss.

“We’ve scheduled a K-9 inspection of our entire office and if that K-9 unit finds any pests we will take immediate action to eliminate any issues,” he said.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com.