Surviving COVID: Fighting and Winning for Front-line Members

Categories: The Insider, Coronavirus

This is the third segment of AFGE’s 4-part series: Surviving COVID: How AFGE Members Took on a Once-in-a-Century Public Health Crisis 

Despite the ongoing pandemic, tens of thousands of federal employees reported to work in-person at their facilities. These essential workers took their mission seriously, and the country owes them a debt of gratitude.

Department of Veterans Affairs employees with direct patient care duties, for example, continued to take care of veterans at hospitals across the country. Transportation Security Administration officers screened passengers at airport security checkpoints every single day. Bureau of Prisons correctional officers staffed prisons to keep communities outside the prison walls safe. And those are just a few examples. 

These employees risked their own lives to protect all of us, but our federal government failed spectacularly to protect them. In fact, there were several instances where managers failed to follow CDC guidelines and put front-line government workers’ lives at risk. 

In the absence of national leadership, AFGE stepped in to protect our own members. We sprang into action at all levels of our union, never waiting before doing everything we could to protect our members against the deadly virus. 

COVID-19 Task Force 

Right when the coronavirus pandemic began, the AFGE national office created a COVID-19 task force comprised of national leadership, council leadership, subject matter experts, and key staff – directors from the General Counsel’s Office, Communications, Legislative and Political, Policy, Membership & Organization, Field Service and Education, and the National President’s Office. 

We put our heads together, met frequently to share information about what was happening on the ground and to advise the national office on what needed to be done.

Coronavirus graphic

Council leaders shared documents, guidelines, and procedures from their individual agencies to help us standardize across the country -- establishing a floor at one agency and working to expand that floor governmentwide. We shared tactics and strategies about return-to-work, where the administration was being most aggressive, and how to fight back the premature call to return to the worksite without proper safety measures. 

Thanks in part to the information collected by the task force, we were among the first unions to create a COVID-19 microsite filled with critical information for our members.

That information sharing helped shape our national policy and the demands we made of the government and Congress.

Seeking hazard pay  

The coronavirus pandemic made thousands of government jobs more dangerous than they normally would be. That’s why AFGE in March 2020 filed a lawsuit seeking hazard pay for workers exposed to the coronavirus while performing their official duties. In July, we amended our lawsuit to include more employees from more agencies. 

In addition to the original named plaintiffs in the lawsuit from the Bureau of Prisons, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the amended complaint added plaintiffs from the Department of Labor, Social Security Administration, Federal Grain Inspection Service, multiple Department of Defense components (including the Air Force, Army, and Defense Commissary Agency), and multiple Department of Homeland Security components – including Citizenship and Immigration Services, Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Working with a law firm, Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch (KCNF DC), our lawsuit seeks a 25% hazard pay differential for General Schedule employees, who are entitled to the additional pay under Title 5 because they were exposed to hazardous working conditions through the performance of their assigned duties and the hazardous duty had not been taken into account in the classification of their positions. We argue that a “virulent biological” like the coronavirus would clearly qualify as a hazard under Title 5.

Similarly, Wage Grade (WG) plaintiffs are entitled to an 8% environmental pay increase for exposure to micro-organisms. The difference between GS and WG pay differentials in our lawsuit is due to the different entitlements these employees have under the law.

As of this writing, the case is still windling its way through the courts. We knew it could be a long fight, but one worth having. 

Helping members navigate scenarios through COVID-19 guidance 

Throughout 2020, we issued a series of COVID-19 guidance documents to help our members navigate difficult scenarios and fight back against management’s resistance to the health and safety practices that keep our members safe.

Graphic for successful government operations during COVID

We also held special update calls with members to share information and answer any questions they might have. From helping them build community support, to whistleblowing best practices, to bargaining about the vaccine, to how to take special COVID-19 leave – we had it covered. Here are some of the pieces of guidance we developed for our members:

Animated how-to videos emerge as a new tool 

As part of our communications efforts around the pandemic, we piloted a new series of short, animated how-to videos to take our members through steps on how to deal with COVID-19 in the workplace. These were highly popular videos, viewed tens of thousands of times, that we posted on social media and used at virtual trainings:

Helping AFGE families through COVID-19 Relief Fund 

Towards the end of 2020, thousands of federal workers filed for workers’ compensation benefits because they contracted the coronavirus at work. According to news reports on Nov. 20, the federal government paid compensation benefits to 3,500 federal workers and approved death benefits to families of 14 employees. At the time, more than 2,600 claims were still pending, including 68 for deaths. 

In response to the overwhelming need of families who had lost a loved one, our union set up AFGE’s COVID-19 Relief Fund to provide monetary assistance to surviving family members of AFGE members who died of COVID-19. Under the program, a local or council submitted a member for consideration for the $1,000 grant. 

Pushing for telework early on 

On March 6, 2020, before the first wave had even begun to peak, President Kelley sent a letter to the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) requesting that OPM immediately allow all federal employees to telework if able. After taking piecemeal steps, the Office of Management and Budget on March 17 finally issued a direct call for all agencies to maximize telework across the nation and to ensure steps were in place to restrict access to federal facilities. 

Finding out what’s happening in the field 

We created a survey so members could let us know what steps were and were not being taken to protect them at their worksites.

Nearly 2,200 employees responded to our survey, which was conducted Aug. 5-12, 2020. Nearly 56% of respondents worked remotely while the rest were physically reporting to their worksites. 

Of respondents working on-site: 

  • 73.1% said their agencies were not doing enough to keep them safe.
  • More than 69% of employees said their worksites had a COVID-19 workplace safety plan in place, but 70.5% did not believe that health and safety best practices were being followed.
  • Just 56.2% of employees who required PPE to do their jobs said their worksites had enough supplies. 

Communication is key 

AFGE sent out daily emails to all members about all aspects of COVID-19 and what we were doing to keep everyone informed. 

We held coronavirus update calls with leaders and members to share information and answer any questions they might have. 

We also did Facebook Live events, which were not only an opportunity for us to bring topics of importance to the attention of our members, but also a chance for them to ask questions of leadership and get them answered in real time. 

AFGE’s successful crisis communications during the outbreak made us a case study for the International Labor Communications Association.

AFGE locals win PPE and other victories 

While many federal workers were able to telework, many others did not have that option.

Agencies requiring workers to report in-person, particularly the VA, were not able to protect those workers against the virus – at least initially.

Seeing these issues arising in real time, AFGE locals across the country took matters into their own hands to secure PPE and other resources our members needed to do their jobs safely.

A few examples include: 

Local 1224 (Veterans Affairs) 

AFGE Local 1224, representing employees at the VA hospitals and clinics in Las Vegas, held a protest on April 30, 2020 to demand that the VA provide enough face masks, PPE, and cleaning supplies for all employees. Prior to the rally, the agency was rationing masks and even telling people they didn’t need masks and PPE unless they worked in certain areas.

“Not sure if our rallies were the determining factor in finally getting the masks and cleaning supplies ramped up, but it definitely raised awareness where that conversation between me and the employees became less of an issue because they were getting what they needed,” said Local 1224 President Linda Ward-Smith.

The local also demanded telework for those who were eligible and made sure employees who were at elevated risk of contracting the virus were able to request exemptions from working directly with COVID patients.

Starting Nov. 16, 2020, the local also partnered with a doctor to give employees free COVID testing because the VA refused to test employees unless they were symptomatic.

Local 3184 (Social Security Administration) 

When federal agencies scrambled to send employees home to telework after COVID hit, SSA was one of the last agencies to do so. Andrew Saul, then SSA administrator, was anti-telework. A few months before, he had terminated or severely restricted telework for much of his workforce. For SSA employees at the West Bank field office in New Orleans, La., Saul’s ill-conceived decision to keep SSA offices open despite the pandemic had a fatal effect.

A manager who had contracted the virus went on to infect five other managers and 10 bargaining unit employees. Employees then went home and infected their parents. Three family members of AFGE members died as a result.

AFGE Local 3184 in April filed a lawsuit against SSA. The next day, SSA closed down offices and sent employees home to telework. 

“Was it a coincidence? We think not,” said Local 3184 President Joel Smith.

Local 3184 represents workers at 64 field offices and teleservice centers in four states. When COVID was still raging earlier this year, his local still had to fight the agency’s push to return employees to the offices without proper safety measures in place. The agency’s action endangered not only employees but also retirees and those with a disability, the most vulnerable of all.

Local 2429 (Air Force) 

When the state of California issued a statewide stay-at-home order, nearly everyone, including Local 2429 members working at Los Angeles Air Force Base (LAAFB), was sent home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. For those who were required to come to work to support the base’s mission, PPE was hard to find. Most employees were using cloth masks or relying on surgical masks that were being used repeatedly. The local knew they had to step in. 

Yvonne Wheeler speaks at community service eventAFGE District 12 National Representative Yvonne Wheeler speaks at community food distribution event in Los Angeles. 

With the help of AFGE District 12 National Representa Yvonne Wheeler, the local was able to obtain hand sanitizer, surgical masks, and KN95 masks from the Los Angeles, AFL-CIO. The local was able to deliver these items to more than 500 bargaining unit members and other members of the LAAFB community. They also provided employees with gloves and face shields. 

“These items were life-saving PPE. They were critical to our front-line members in the local commissary as well as union members who worked tirelessly at the Military Entrance Processing Center and the Child Care Development Center,” said Local 2429 President Roslyn Austin-Stewart. 

In addition to the PPE, the local was able to secure telework, paid sick leave, and enhanced health and safety measures to keep its members safe.

Local 2725 (D.C. Government) 

After COVID hit and the D.C. Government’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs handed each employee a Ziplock bag with a pair of gloves, a mask, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer and told them it was supposed to last a week, AFGE Local 2725 kicked it into high gear.

They scouted CVS stores, supply stores, online stores, and anywhere else that they could to find protective gear. They made three separate purchases to meet the demand that the agency could not.

The agency was not telework-ready either. When the agency sent employees home to telework around May or June, they discovered they did not have enough laptops for everyone. For the employees to be able to telework during the outbreak, the local negotiated for them to be able to take their work desktops home so these employees could continue serving D.C. residents while the agency worked on acquiring more laptops.

Local 424 (VA) 

In April, coronavirus cases in the U.S. approached 1 million. At the VA hospital in Baltimore, management refused to provide testing to employees exposed to the virus or allow telework for those who were eligible. In addition, they did not give employees enough PPE. AFGE Local 424 decided they had to do something.

AFGE activists protest for PPEAFGE and NAGE union activists protest for safer working conditions at the VA facility in Baltimore, MD.

Local 424 members joined forces with another union – the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE-SEIU) Local R3-19 – and took to the streets to protest the unsafe working conditions and demand that management do better.

After the action, they saw immediate changes: More surgical and N95 masks were given to employees, and the emergency room medical support assistants were approved for telework overnight. 

“Just like other locals who have taken action in West Palm Beach, Carrollton, Salem, Biloxi and more, it is clear: when we show our power, we can win real change,” said Regina Smith, president of AFGE Local 424. 

Local 609 (VA) 

Things were bad at the VA hospital in Indianapolis. So bad that OSHA, on Sept. 8, 2020, issued three citations against the hospital for its failure to protect employees against the coronavirus.

The citations were a result of AFGE Local 609 filing complaints after the VA failed to determine appropriate PPE for the workforce and to give PPE to all employees who encountered individuals who may have the coronavirus, not just direct patient care providers. 

“We are glad that OSHA agrees that it isn’t enough to just give out masks and claim that you have sufficient PPE,” said AFGE Health and Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez. “The VA is required to make sure the PPE is appropriate, that it fits, and that employees know how to use them.” 

These were the first OSHA citations in the federal sector, which were in sharp contrast to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s repeated claims that there had never been PPE shortages at VA facilities since the coronavirus pandemic began. 

Legislatively speaking 

Since the outbreak began, AFGE reached out to members of Congress at all levels to get the help we needed to protect our members. Locals got their lawmakers involved when agencies were slow to implement safety measures or failed to provide enough PPE, for example. At the national level, AFGE worked closely with Congress and, and as a result, our union was able to win several protections and benefits for federal workers through various pieces of legislation.

Collage of AFGE members, staff and lawmakers on a Zoom callAFGE's National VA Council holds a tele=town hall with lawmakers to discuss hazard duty pay, PPE, and telework as the country’s battling the coronavirus outbreak.

Here are some of the major victories we won on the legislative front to protect AFGE members:

1. 2 weeks of COVID-19 paid sick leave  

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which became law in March 2020, provides federal employees with up to two weeks of COVID-related emergency paid sick leave to care for themselves or family members.

2. 15 weeks of emergency paid leave in fiscal 2021

A new COVID relief bill passed in March 2021 gives federal employees up to 15 weeks of emergency paid leave through September to address issues related to the coronavirus, such as exposure to COVID-19, a negative reaction to the vaccine, or caring for school-age kids and family members who are affected by the pandemic.

3. Automatic presumption of workplace illness

The 2021 COVID relief law includes an automatic presumption of workplace illness for front-line federal employees who contract COVID-19 on the job. This change will allow employees or their survivors to receive workers’ compensation benefits under the Federal Employee Compensation Act (FECA) without facing denials or lengthy appeals, a huge win for workers and our union. 

4. Funding to protect feds against COVID

The 2021 COVID relief law also provides $200 million for pandemic-related worker protection activities at the Labor Department, $100 million of which would go to OSHA to support OSHA enforcement and worker training in high-risk sectors, such as meat processing, health care, correctional facilities, and agriculture. 

5. Fiscal relief for D.C.  

The 2021 COVID relief law restores the $755 million in funding that D.C. was denied in the 2020 CARES Act when D.C. was treated as a territory instead of a state. This has been a big priority for D.C. since CARES passed over a year ago today. According to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the bill includes “an estimated $2.3 billion in fiscal relief” for D.C., which includes the $755 million. 

Missed our first and second segments of the series? 

Check them out here: 

#1: Surviving COVID: How AFGE Members Took on a Once-in-a-Century Public Health Crisis 

#2: Surviving COVID: A Deadly New Virus 

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