AFGE President Everett Kelley told members of Congress that the federal government will further the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by rushing to reopen federal worksites without ensuring safety protocols are in place to protect workers and the public.
Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Management and Accountability, Kelley said there is “no excuse” for exposing workers to the pandemic in a rush to reopen the Department of Homeland Security or other federal agencies.
“The vast majority of DHS’s workforce are front-line, ‘essential’ employees who have been at their regular duty stations throughout the pandemic,” Kelley said in his prepared statement. “Taking the necessary steps to protect them – universal testing, strict social distancing, provision of adequate Personal Protective Equipment – might at one point have been impossible due to insufficient supplies. But today there is no excuse.”
AFGE represents employees in several DHS components, including Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and the Federal Marshalls Service.
On April 22, just two days after the administration issued governmentwide guidance on reopening federal worksites, Kelley sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought detailing AFGE’s six preconditions for reopening worksites and warning of a rushed reopening. OMB has yet to respond.
“It is now nine weeks later and in states that reopened too early such as Texas and Florida, the data are showing a resurgence of the pandemic. We are not seeing, however, a reversion to ‘stay at home’ directives that are supposed to precede any reopening,” Kelley said.
AFGE’s FEMA Council reports that its top priority is that testing becomes available for all employees prior to return to work. As hurricane season approaches, FEMA employees will be traveling from all over the country, from different states with vastly different levels of infection, social distancing rules, and use of PPE.
They are concerned not only that they might be bringing infection with them, but they also believe that without universal testing they will be at risk of contracting the virus from others.
FEMA employees report that the agency has been promising to provide masks to employees for more than a month and so far, employees have received no masks. Cloth masks won’t work either. FEMA employees, like all other DHS employees, need FDA-approved surgical masks to help prevent them from transmitting the virus and to protect them from others who may be emitting droplets or particles that contain the virus.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published information that said cloth face masks “are not considered personal protective equipment” and they will “not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration.
In addition to sharing concerns about a rushed reopening, Kelley also called for Congress to approve an emergency supplemental appropriation for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is threatening to furlough more than 70% of its workforce beginning Aug. 3 due to a budget shortfall partly related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Furloughs of this magnitude would make it entirely impossible for the agency to carry out more than a tiny fraction of its mission,” Kelley said. “With a loss of nearly three-fourths of its workforce, work, student and visitor visa petitions, asylum and citizenship/naturalization applications, green cards, and refugee applications will not be processed.”
Kelley said the emergency appropriation should be approved on the condition that no employees will be furloughed.