As the number of Covid-19 cases climbs and lawmakers are drafting legislation in response to the outbreak, there are a number of things members of Congress can do to ensure health and safety of federal workers who are working on the frontlines to protect and serve the American people during the pandemic.
Many AFGE members are health care providers and support personnel at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Our members are frontline emergency responders, including employees at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and those whose jobs require regular contact with the public, such as Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) and those at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Social Security Administration (SSA).
Because of workplace exposure, nine civilian federal workers have died of the virus and thousands more have tested positive. The real numbers could be a lot higher since there is no uniformed method for federal agencies to report COVID-19 cases and related deaths.
Now more than ever, these frontline workers need lawmakers’ support to do their jobs. As Congress works to pass the next coronavirus relief legislation, here are six things they can include in the bill that would make a difference:
Congress should provide hazardous duty pay differentials and environmental differential pay to federal employees who are required to report to work and risk exposure to COVID-19 through their jobs. Because federal employees are in immediate danger of exposure, and current protocols provide no guarantee of protection, employees who are required to work in facilities such as hospitals, prisons, airports, military depots and arsenals and other federal campuses should all be guaranteed hazardous duty pay.
Congress should amend the Federal Employee Compensation Act (FECA), the law that governs workers’ compensation for federal employees, to provide an automatic presumption of workplace illness for employees who contract COVID-19 through the performance of their duties. Federal employees do not have adequate personal protective equipment, adequate training, and they lack clear, consistent guidance from agencies regarding preventive measures. As a result, the number of federal employees who must be quarantined or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 is increasing rapidly every day.
If employees are required to interact with the public, individuals who are quarantined, or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the performance of their duties, there should be a presumption that the employee contracted the virus at work. A workplace presumption of illness will allow federal employees who have contracted the virus through the performance of their duties to make a FECA claim without facing a potentially lengthy denial and appeals process and help these workers receive the care and services they need.
Congress should require all agencies to expand telework to all employees who can perform their duties remotely to minimize the spread of COVID19. If employees are not able to perform their duties remotely and they are not required to report to work, they should be placed on weather and safety leave.
Congress should provide weather and safety leave to all employees who are not able to perform their duties remotely and who cannot travel to their duty station because of health and safety risks as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. The use of weather and safety leave will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that federal employees are not reporting for duty and risking exposure to the virus or exposing other federal workers or the public.
Congress should restore labor-management relations and communication as agencies work to quickly implement new policies and workplace procedures during this health care crisis.
The Trump administration’s anti-worker Executive Orders issued in May 2018 continue to serve as barriers to labor-management collaboration. Union representatives should have the opportunity to communicate regularly to discuss the needs and concerns of employees as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Union reps can provide important ideas and feedback as agencies work to adapt to this new environment and respond to the needs of the public.
Congress should amend current law to allow for a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic to be considered as a “qualifying life event,” giving federal employees who are not currently enrolled in a FEHBP health plan the opportunity to purchase health care coverage, and allow current enrollees to make changes to their existing plans.
Many career part-time federal employees are not enrolled in FEHBP. They also pay higher FEHBP premiums than career full-time federal employees do. Agencies such as TSA, DOD, and FEMA utilize the workers’ flexibility in scheduling to keep a large segment of their workforces part-time. Prior to COVID-19, many part-time employees opted out of FEHBP because they could not afford their share of premiums. Allowing a public health crisis to serve as a “qualifying life event” to open FEHBP enrollment will allow employees to have access to medical treatment during this crisis.
“The federal workforce is bravely working to ensure that the American public continues to receive important services and benefits during the COVID-19 crisis,” said AFGE President Everett Kelley in a letter to members of the House and the Senate. “We ask that you please urge your leadership to include the above worker safety provisions in future COVID-19 response legislation.”
For more information about AFGE’s response to COVID-19, visit www.afge.org/coronavirus.