Feds, contractors confused by Ebola guidance

A federal contractor who works at a government facility is denied entry. The reason: he recently visited family in West Africa. He had no contact with Ebola patients. He shows no signs of the virus. His employer fears the development will slow down the work it has promised the agency that it would do.

The story, relayed by Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, is an outlier. But it’s the type of scenario that the association fears will become more common amid the evolving, and often contradictory, guidance on how to treat people returning from West Africa, whether they have had direct contact with Ebola patients or not.

The PSC Wednesday hosted a meeting between representatives of several dozen contractors and government officials. While some were engaged in the Ebola effort, others were in unrelated fields, such as international development, said Soloway. Speakers listed at the event include executives at the development and engineering firms Tetra Tech and Futures Group and U.S. Agency for International Development official Patricia Rader, a member of the agency’s Ebola task force. Underscoring the sensitive nature of the issue, the association closed the meeting to the public. Just one company executive agreed to speak to the media, but would not let us use their name in order to speak freely about the topic given the fluid nature of the situation.

That industry official said his firm, a USAID contractor with staff worldwide, was requiring its employees in Ebola-stricken areas to take their temperatures orally several times a day. It has also formed its own Ebola response task force. Knowing that employees in the region might not be able to find adequate health care in the overloaded clinics there, the firm has discussed with its suppliers of health insurance and medical evacuation what would happen should an employee catch the virus. Other firms with projects in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are taking similar steps to protect employees, including sending those who are American citizens back home, he said.

“Our duty of care is to protect those individuals and their families in any kind of crisis,” he said. “The flip side of the coin is business continuity. How do we maintain operations in the face of a potentially destabilizing influence like the mass outbreak of Ebola?”

USAID has asked contractors working in West Africa to draft emergency plans in case employees must evacuate. In the plans, the companies must describe how they would secure their work and related property, maintain business continuity to the greatest extent possible and return to full speed once the crisis has passed. In a fact sheet, the agency says it will consider costs and delays that contractors may incur because of the outbreak on a case-by-case basis.

Developing an appropriate response to the crisis depends on a firm’s ability to interpret the evidence as it appears, like “drinking from a fire hose,” the industry official said.

Separately, companies at the PSC event voiced concern about further restrictions on air travel that could strand American employees working in the region and could prevent others from being deployed, Soloway said. While there are no direct flights from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone to the United States, some lawmakers have suggested stopping travelers who have been in those three countries from boarding any flight bound for the United States. U.S. health experts and the Obama Administration have cautioned against a travel ban, but some other countries already have imposed such restrictions.

Finally, Soloway said, contractors are concerned about possible quarantines or other restrictions on employees who return home and want to rejoin their families. Some states have threatened to prevent them from doing so out of fear that they would spread the disease. Unless they have a fever, or other symptoms of Ebola, health experts say it is highly unlikely that they would be contagious.

“We need strong leadership and more science-based policies,” said the industry official. At his firm, employees can work from home, in the case of a quarantine. But health care workers might not be able to telework.

Labor union says civilian employees need better guidance too

While contractors are discreetly raising their concerns to government officials, the American Federation of Government Employees is dogging the Obama Administration for better guidance for federal employees working in similiar situations.

The Pentagon is requiring service members to quarantine themselves for 21 days upon return from Ebola-stricken countries. It has issued no such guidance for the department’s civilian employees working alongside the military, leading the union to accuse the department of treating those employees as “second-class citizens.”

“If DoD considers service in Ebola-affected countries to pose such a high risk for members of the military that they are required to be monitored or quarantined for 21 days upon arrival in the U.S., then civilians with similar exposure should be guaranteed 21 days of administrative leave for either self-isolation and monitoring or quarantine, whichever medical authorities decide is appropriate,” said AFGE President J. David Cox in a statement.

Furthermore, troops deployed to West Africa are receiving hardship duty pay retroactive from their first day. Civilian employees are not. Those employees are engaged in potentially dangerous work, according to the union, including testing blood samples in labs and staffing emergency medical centers.

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