US unions demand COVID safeguards for federal staff

By on 02/06/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The Federal Workers Alliance says that failure to adequately protect federal workers could "exacerbate this worldwide pandemic and all but ensure that its deleterious effects linger for months and years to come". (U.S. Navy photo by mass communication specialist 2nd class, Natalie M. Byers).

Unions representing 300,000 US federal workers have written a letter to president Trump urging his administration to prioritise the safety and security of government employees in the face of COVID-19. “The safety of federal workers directly impacts the safety of all Americans,” the letter says. “We must insist that you take these reasonable actions to ensure their safety. Anything less will put hundreds of thousands of dedicated federal employees, their families, and the Americans they serve, in unnecessary danger.”

The Federal Workers Alliance – comprising 24 unions, including the National Federation of Federal Employees and the National Association of Government Employees – demand that the government implement 11 safety precautions before employees can return to their workplaces. These include providing personal protective equipment (PPE); offering employees who suspect they may have been exposed to COVID-19 testing on request; and giving workers “immediate and thorough” notice if a person suspected of having the virus has been at their worksite.  

“As agencies prepare to recall workers back into offices and other workstations, and necessarily back onto public transportation, into cities, and onto roads, the undersigned organizations strongly urge the federal government to prioritize the safety and security of its workers,” the letter reads.

In areas where local and state authorities are responding to outbreaks of the virus and where there is a higher threat to public health, the federal government “must allow employees to continue sheltering in place, and working from home, unless and until it is safe to return to the office”, the unions say.

The alliance also requests that in jurisdictions where local authorities have begun a phased re-opening, agencies must be “flexible in allowing federal employees to develop a schedule that both meets the essential elements of their mission but also protects the health of the workers and their families – many of whom will lack childcare options for the foreseeable future”.

The letter comes after the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) published a notice last month stating that the federal government would begin a “phased transition” to normal working operations. This week, the OPM also issued its own reopening preparedness guide.

Government Executive estimated on 21 May that at least 126 federal employees had died of coronavirus and said that, at some agencies, employees had been instructed to continue working after being exposed to the virus. The agencies that have seen the highest death tolls include the US Postal Service, the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), the Defense Department, the State Department, and Customs and Border Protection.

GovExec also reported last week that VA workers across the country are disputing a claim made to Congress by departmental leaders that any employee who wants a COVID-19 test – for any reason – could get one.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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