Federal Agencies Still Drag Feet in Protecting Workers Against Coronavirus
March 16, 2020
Categories: The Insider, Coronavirus
The World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11 declared the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, a global pandemic as cases in the U.S. climbed to more than 3,700 in 49 states and Washington, D.C. The outbreak has forced Americans, including federal workers, to change their daily lives. Trade shows and conferences across the country have been canceled. The NCAA basketball tournament has been canceled. More than 100 universities have canceled in-person classes, including those with no active cases, and moved online.
Federal agencies, however, have been largely slow in their response to the risk of infection among the workforce despite new guidance from the Office of Personnel Management maximizing telework.
The Social Security Administration (SSA), for example, has denied our union’s repeated calls to immediately allow all eligible workers to telework. Four SSA offices may have already been exposed to the virus:
1. Seven Fields, PA Office of Hearing Operations (OH): A vocational expert worked in the hearing office after she was exposed to someone with possible COVID-19. As of March 13, no action was taken with respect to the employees who were potentially exposed as a result.
2. Baltimore, Md., OHO National Case Assistance Center: An employee was potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a family member. The employee informed management, and management sent the employee home. As of March 13, no action was taken for the employees who were potentially exposed because they worked around the employee who reported a potential exposure.
3. Auburn, WA Mega teleservice center/ Workload Support Unit: An employee reported to management that the employee was potentially exposed to the virus after being in immediate contact with an employee who tested positive for COVID-19. Management’s response was to proposed isolating the employee in the office by stashing the employee in a corner, rather than grant the employee telework (which the employee had done in the past).
4. A St. Louis-area field office was potentially exposed to COVID-19 after an employee’s family member attended a party with someone who tested positive. As of March 13, no action was taken.
SSA drastically cut the telework program last year and earlier this year. It now reinstated telework only at a handful of offices, including those in Seattle and New York. Our union is still working to get the agency to reinstate telework agencywide, but we shouldn’t have to. The agency is putting the public and employees at risk.
“Every single day SSA does nothing, SSA bears the responsibility for what happens to its employees and to the visiting public when it could have very easily taken steps such as telework expansion and deploying alternative methods to serve the public to mitigate the risk,” said AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture. “Every day the agency refuses to do to the right thing the right way, SSA sends the message that it does not care about the health and well-being of its workforce, as well as the visiting public. Shame.”
At the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in Washington, D.C., employees are upset that OPM failed to take appropriate steps after employees were potentially exposed to COVID-19 in the facility.
At the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), as far back as January 29, AFGE began asking for proper personal protective equipment for employees, including that TSA officers be allowed to use N95 respirators to protect themselves while screening passengers. TSA, however, denied the request, saying the officers can only wear surgical masks, which don’t really provide protection against this kind of respiratory disease. Seven TSA officers recently contracted the virus: four in San Jose, Calif., one in Atlanta, one in Orlando, and one in Fort Lauderdale.
It’s chaos at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Two VA facilities – the Indianapolis and Little Rock medical centers – are confiscating the facilities’ mask inventory and not letting the employees use them. Employees are told to mask a patient if presented with symptoms, but not the employees treating them.
The VA has banned visitors at its nursing homes, but visitors are still allowed at most VA hospitals, creating chaos at some facilities due to new screening measures being implemented without a national strategy.
Administrative personnel at a VA facility in Cleveland, Ohio, for example, expressed concern that management placed them on the frontline to screen veterans and visitors even though they are not qualified to evaluate patients.
“AFGE is concerned that safety protocols have not been sufficiently communicated to the frontline workforce, and adequate personal protective equipment such as gloves, effective masks and hand cleaner have not been deployed to an adequate extent,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley.
The VA is asking veterans with flu-like symptoms to call before they visit their local VA facilities, but whether veterans will get through is another story as the VA is severely short-staffed – the agency has for years refused to fill its 50,000 vacancies.
According to our internal survey, agencies are not communicating with their workforces to a degree that will allow them to protect themselves or the public adequately in order to contain the spread of this virus. In most cases, employees have only been given a link to the Centers for Disease Control website, told to monitor the news, and stay home if they do not feel well.
As of March 16, only a few agencies are implementing agencywide telework: the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“During this unprecedented time, in order to keep our workforce healthy, and so that we can continue to serve students, I am directing everyone who is in a position that is deemed telework eligible to begin telework immediately. This directive is in accordance with the new CDC and OMB guidance issued yesterday and is in the best interests of our federal workforce.,” said the Department of Education.
At USCIS, each employee’s eligibility will be decided by management following bargaining with AFGE.
"The Agency intends to implement the Remote Work program throughout every office in the Agency," Labor and Employee Relations Division chief Judy McLaughlin said in a March 9 letter to AFGE Council 119 President Danielle Spooner. "Determinations whether existing or proposed Remote Work agreements are in the best interest of USCIS, whether an employee is eligible to participate in the Remote Work Program, and whether the agency should enter into a Remote Work agreement with an employee will be made by management.”
A lot more needs to be done to protect frontline workers
President Trump has tried to cut the Centers for Disease Control’s and National Institutes of Health’s budgets since taking office. Fortunately, Congress has refused to go along. Trump did eliminate a pandemic response team created by Obama following the 2014 Ebola outbreak. For fiscal 2021, Trump proposed to cut the CDC’s budget by 9%. The administration isn’t backing off the proposed cuts despite the coronavirus outbreak.
Our union is grateful that Congress recently provided $8.3 billion in emergency supplemental funding to address the coronavirus pandemic. Health care providers and emergency responders are among those federal employees who have been or are likely to be called upon to provide services to populations infected with COVID-19 by providing healthcare and other public safety services.
But a lot more needs to be done to provide support to frontline workers.
1. Most effective personal protective equipment
Workers who provide patient care and those who are emergency responders must be accorded the highest priority for disease prevention measures, including providing them with the most effective personal protective equipment.
There will likely be a national shortage of N95 charcoal and paper respirators. N95 respirators are only safe to wear and use once within a 24-hour period as they are at risk of developing mold after just one day of wear. AFGE finds the recent CDC guidance allowing the use of surgical masks instead of respirators extremely concerning. As we learn more about the ways COVID-19 spreads, the CDC and federal agencies must make certain that all federal employees potentially exposed to the virus have the necessary personal protective equipment.
We have also received reports that agencies still do not have an adequate number of white respirator germ free suits for coronavirus response.
Congress must ensure that the recent funding provided by H.R. 6074 reaches the frontline responders and federal employees required to interact with the public as they perform their duties.
2. Full health care coverage
All federal employees who are in positions where they may be exposed to COVID-19 should have rapid access to screening at no cost.
For those on the frontlines such as first responders, law enforcement officers, TSA officers, and all those with substantial work-related contact with the general public where telework is not practicable, we urge agencies to adopt a policy, like the long-established precedent at the VA with Agent Orange, that if they are exposed, there is a presumption that the virus was contracted at work. That way, a frontline worker will have access through the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA) to full coverage of related medical treatment and for wage loss or disability related to that condition or associated complications from the illness.
TSA should also immediately retract its recent reductions of Federal Employee Health Benefit Program (FEHBP) coverage for its large part-time workforce and provide for a temporary open season to return to better health plans. These workers’ share of premiums doubled, and with their low pay, many changed to less expensive policies with higher deductibles and less generous coverage. We cannot afford to have such artificial barriers to employees seeking the best possible medical treatment.
3. Hazardous duty pay
Workers who provide direct patient care and emergency services to individuals who have contracted COVID-19 do not have clear, specific guidance and effective preventive equipment and gear to protect themselves from contracting the virus. In other cases where workers are exposed to unusual hazards, current law provides for a pay differential, or hazardous duty pay.
Because these workers are in immediate danger of exposure, and current protocols have no guarantees of protection, employees required to work and interface with individuals who have been quarantined or diagnosed with COVID-19 should qualify for hazardous duty pay.
Agencies should allow workers who can perform their duties via telework to begin doing so immediately.
Before the outbreak of the virus, the administration had either drastically cut or cancelled several telework programs at various agencies such as SSA, EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Education as part of its ongoing war against federal workers and unions.
What we’ve just won
AFGE was successful in persuading OPM to ask the insurance companies that cover participants in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) to relax refill eligibility dates and requirements in light of the Coronavirus pandemic. Virtually all prescription drug plans under the FEHBP use Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), one purpose of which is to limit the unnecessary refilling and/or renewal of prescriptions prior to a patient’s anticipated exhaustion of their existing prescription supply. PBM renewal limitations have been strengthened in recent years due to widespread opioid abuse.
The COVID-19 crisis, coupled with general drug supply disruptions, meant that the “just-in-time” approach used by PBMs could cause federal employees, retirees and their dependents to be unable to refill many prescriptions during this crisis, including those used for chronic conditions. We told OPM in a letter that this was a matter of grave concern to our members because PBMs often restrict the refilling of a prescription until less than one week prior to the anticipated exhaustion of a patient’s supply.
As of March 11, OPM asked carriers to comply with our request ( https://www.opm.gov/healthcare-insurance/healthcare/carriers/2020/2020-02.pdf).
AFGE’s coronavirus website
The situation involving COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving one. Our website at www.afge.org/coronavirus provides bargaining guidance to our local and council leaders on the issue. We are committed to keeping you updated on information regarding the coronavirus and its impact in the United States. Check out our coronavirus website here.
Our union’s headquarters is also going to telework effective March 16, but we will not skip a beat in holding agencies accountable for their coronavirus response.