Federal unions frustrated by agency pandemic plans

coronavirus molecule (creativeneko/ 

Federal agencies are implementing alternative work routines as a precautionary measure as more federal employees report symptoms similar to that of the coronavirus.

A number of agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, IRS and Citizenship and Immigration Services have implemented one or more options, such as expanding their telework options for employees, implementing social distancing and cancelling nonessential travel. Unions have pointed out, however, that not every worker is entitled to telecommute or take paid leave, which has been a point of contention in labor-management disputes and the subject of recent legislation.

Labor unions say it's not enough. Concerns that agencies aren't doing enough to protect frontline workers such as airport screeners abound.

On March 11, the American Federation of Government Employees submitted testimony to lawmakers excoriating agencies for their allegedly inadequate strategies for preparing such workers against potential COVID-19 transmission since they interact with the public on a daily basis.

"AFGE is extremely concerned that safety protocols have not been sufficiently communicated to the front-line workforce. Agencies are not communicating with their workforces with enough information or to a degree that will allow them to protect themselves or the public," National President Everett Kelley said in his statement.

"We are concerned that workers who provide direct patient care and emergency services to individuals who have contracted COVID-19 lack clear, specific guidance and effective preventive equipment and gear to protect themselves from contracting the virus."

His statement came a day after Transportation Security Agency Administrator David Pekoske reportedly rejected AFGE Council 100's request to strengthen safety precautions and provide Transportation Security Officers with N95 respiratory masks to safeguard against coronavirus pathogens, which transmit via droplets after coughing or sneezing.

Three transportation security officers at San Jose International Airport later tested positive for the coronavirus.

The National Treasury Employees Union expressed its frustration that despite the union's efforts to proactively reach out, agencies weren't forthcoming with their pandemic plans.

"Today the overall government effort to protect federal employees has fallen far short. Employees are completely in the dark about what to do if their children's school closes or a coworker reports having coronavirus-like symptoms. It's important for them to know if they've been in contact with someone who tested positive," NTEU National President Tony Reardon told reporters in a March 12 briefing.

In those instances, NTEU encourages agencies to "immediately broaden telework options to as many employees as possible" and waive reporting requirements, Reardon added.

NTEU also represents frontline workers at IRS and Customs and Border Protection, where Reardon said that guidance and precautions for workers was particularly lacking.

"It is important for people to know whether or not they have been subjected to or come into contact with somebody who has the virus so they can pay attention to what’s going on with them, and do they need to get checked," Reardon said. "That is something we are hearing over and over again from our CBP officers that is extremely disconcerting to them, because of course at the end of their shifts, they are traveling home, going to grocery stores and living with their families.”

Reardon also reiterated NTEU's call for the IRS to provide its service center workers with gloves, wipes and other sanitation supplies to prevent transmission when handling tax documents and find other ways to allow IRS employees to perform their duties that didn't require them to be in close contact with one another.

"These are locations with thousands of employees. We've talked to the IRS and we're encouraging them to doing everything [they] can to ensure that there are ways to not have so many employees clustered together, such as decreasing shifts and capacity at service centers and call sites."

The bottom line, Reardon said, was that the federal government was failing its employees by not providing basic instructions as schools and businesses have closed, and the economy reacted to the pandemic.

"The federal government is our nation's largest employers. They've got to be on front line and setting an example to combating a serious problem. The agencies that I'm hearing from are scared and anxious, looking for leadership from this government and not getting it."

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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