In a victory for AFGE and employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs Roseburg Healthcare System in Oregon, an arbitrator ordered the VA to restore all vacation and sick leave and reimburse all leave without pay for employees who took time off or were told to stay home due to COVID-19. The arbitrator found that the agency should have offered employees other leave options available through various laws passed in response to the pandemic.
At the beginning of the outbreak, the VA screened workers as they entered the facility and sent them home if they had COVID-19 symptoms or had been exposed to the virus. The agency required that employees use their personal leave, including those who cared for children whose school or childcare facility was closed due to COVID. Many were marked AWOL because they got sick and ran out of personal leave.
The improper requirement prompted AFGE District 11 and Local 1042 to file a class-action grievance in April 2020 charging that the agency had violated the labor-management contract. The union also charged that the agency failed to implement safety measures including providing personal protective equipment to employees. Additionally, the agency failed to allow telework where it was appropriate to protect workers and prevent the spread of the virus.
The arbitrator sustained the grievance in its entirety and ordered the agency to comply with the contract. The agency was ordered to send emails to all employees and post notices acknowledging its violations of the contract and that it will comply with such provisions in the future.
The agency, however, appealed the arbitrator’s decision with the Federal Labor Relations Authority challenging the portions of the award related to restoring leave and paying back pay, but the FLRA dismissed the appeal last month.
“I’m excited about it,” said Local 1042 President Carolyn Schwab. “It was a long time coming. Employees were just thrilled.”
The local and the agency are currently working on a process for all employees who believe they have leave that falls under the decision to come forward and make sure it’s reimbursed.