May 14, 2009
Emily Ryan
(202) 639-6421

AFGE Demands Better Agency Planning for Future Epidemics/Pandemics

(WASHINGTON)—Federal agency response to the H1N1 flu outbreak was generally “slow and inadequate,” in part, due to resentment toward unions, American Federation of Government Employees National Border Patrol Council President T.J. Bonner said today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia.

“Although there is clearly a shared interest between management and labor to safeguard the health of our government’s workforce, the adversarial relationship that has poisoned the overall atmosphere for the past eight years has unfortunately spilled over to the health and safety programs as well, and the recent flu outbreak is no exception,” Bonner said.

“Many agencies have been dismissive of employees’ concerns, showing callous disregard for employees’ legitimate worries,” Bonner added. “Workers are being deployed to border areas with no protection and with little or no regard for their fears and concerns or whether their failure to act might actually contribute to the spread of the virus. Some workers have gone unprotected, putting both them and the public with whom they interact at increased risk.”

Also of concern to AFGE is the lack of union involvement. “Unions need to be at the table during discussions assessing these situations and dealing with them. Plans to address the H1N1 flu are being developed without the involvement of, or even consultation with, employee representatives. AFGE has a number of very knowledgeable safety representatives and activists who are eager to work with their employing agencies to reduce injuries and illnesses among our members,” Bonner said. “Only [OPM Director John Berry] reached out to AFGE and ensured that unions were invited to attend a forum OPM hosted on Human Resources Readiness.

Bonner also raised concerns about the Department of Homeland Security’s lackluster response to the flu outbreak. “DHS failed to ensure that its components issued sufficient quantities of personal protective equipment, and failed to promulgate or follow sensible or useful guidance to employees,” he said.

“The situation at the Transportation Security Administration is illustrative of this,” Bonner continued. “Despite a constant exposure to potential health hazards, TSA offered no official guidance to Transportation Security Officers for more than a week after the outbreak, and when that guidance was finally issued, TSOs found it to be confusing, illogical, and in conflict with the guidance of both the CDC and DHS Secretary Napolitano.”

On April 28—immediately after the flu outbreak began—AFGE issued an urgent letter to the acting TSA administrator. Three weeks later, AFGE has yet to receive a response.

“AFGE urges the Committee to hold federal agencies accountable for providing a safe and healthy working environment and to protect their employees. Having in place effective workplace health and safety programs with active worker and union participation will help us better prepare for the next crisis,” Bonner concluded. “AFGE is prepared to work with the Committee, employing agencies and OSHA to make the federal government a safer and more healthful workplace. This will not only improve morale, but will also allow governmental agencies to continue to carry out their vital missions during a pandemic event.”

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