Even though the United States has the world’s highest numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, the federal government has remained open throughout the outbreak. The Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and various other departments, agencies and components our members have worked bravely and courageously throughout the pandemic, most on the front lines at their regular duty stations, with many others working remotely to carry out the missions of their agencies.
We don’t have firm data on how many federal workers have contracted the virus and died, but the data we do have indicates that at least 45 civilian federal workers have died from COVID-19: 30 at the VA, 5 at the Defense Department, 6 at the Transportation Security Administration, and 4 at the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Thousands have contracted the virus.
Now that the federal government has started to resume full operations, more infections and deaths will be reported.
A better way to operate federal agencies during COVID-19
The coronavirus is still spreading. Indeed, the VA hospital in Las Vegas is going back on lockdown because of increased COVID-19 cases. To prevent more infections and deaths, it’s time the federal government rethinks how it operates amid the pandemic.
In her testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations on June 25, AFGE Public Policy Director Jacqueline Simon laid out plans for the federal government to successfully serve the American public while protecting the workers who deliver those services.
Here are 10 things we need for successful government operations during COVID-19:
1. Premium pay for front-line workers
The work of front-line workers puts them in danger of contracting the virus. It’s only fair that we provide them with premium pay. We support making that pay retroactive to January 27, 2020 when the national emergency went into effect.
2. Automatic presumption of workplace illness for workers’ compensation purposes
An automatic presumption of workplace illness allows federal workers who contract the virus on the job to make a workers’ compensation claim without facing a potentially lengthy denial and appeals process and helps them receive much needed benefits and health care services.
3. Adequate Personal Protection Equipment
All federal worksites need to be supplied with items that help minimize the spread of infection such as employer-supplied FDA-approved masks and other PPE, hand sanitizer, facilities for hand washing including soap and hot water, and tissues.
4. Telework for eligible employees
Federal employees have demonstrated they are able to be effective and productive working remotely during the pandemic. Agencies should allow telework for all eligible federal employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
5. OSHA temporary standard to protect workers
OSHA needs to do its job protecting workers by issuing a temporary standard requiring employers to develop workplace safety plans to protect employees against the coronavirus.
6. Emergency paid sick leave
Emergency paid sick leave should be provided to every federal employee who is not able to report to work due to a COVID-19 related illness or caring for a family member with a COVID-19 related illness.
7. Universal testing and contact tracing
Only with universal testing will it be possible to implement prudent policies for the use of public transportation, for social distancing inside federal offices and other worksites, and other appropriate precautions, especially those that involve direct interaction with the general public. Testing should be available at no cost to federal employees who are deemed essential and to those who are teleworking before and after they return to their duty station.
8. Equal rights for the federal workforce
Because no one is low-risk, tens of thousands have died who were young and healthy before contracting the virus. Full accommodation should be provided to anyone who needs measures to ensure that individual’s safety and health. We also must ensure parity for all federal employees instead of continuing separate and unequal personnel management systems. Federal employees who do not fall under Title 5 of the U.S. Code have been overlooked and as frontline workers, they have few rights at work.
9. FEHBP enrollment opportunity
Many career part-time federal employees are not enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The current law needs to be amended to allow federal employees who are not currently enrolled in a FEHBP health plan the opportunity to purchase health care coverage during this public health emergency.
10. Restoration of labor-management relations
From the outset of this pandemic, AFGE has been shut out of agency response teams at both the national and local level. The federal government’s unwillingness to listen to the frontline employees who deliver care and serve the American public is a stark departure from the labor-management partnerships that allowed federal government agencies to fulfill their missions during hurricanes, epidemics, and other past national crises.
To address the health and safety of federal workers, there must be a clear government-wide directive for agencies to consult and collaborate with employees and their unions to develop and implement policies to address the issues outlined in this statement. Federal employees will bear the consequences of policies being imposed without their valuable input, even when decisions threaten their lives.
For more information on AFGE’s response to COVID-19, visit www.afge.org/coronavirus.