Unions raise coronavirus safety concerns over frontline CBP, VA employees

Two of the largest federal employee unions are raising concerns about the safety of their members as the number of coronavirus cases has risen and peaked in some places across the country.

The American Federation of Government Employees on Tuesday filed two separate complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which charge both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Bureau of Prisons for failing to protect their employees from the risks associated with the coronavirus.

VA on Tuesday afternoon flatly disputed the claims AFGE Council 53, which represents some 260,000 employees at the department, detailed in its OSHA complaint.

“All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain,” Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, said in an email to Federal News Network.

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The union claimed VA had created an unsafe working environment by failing to provide proper personal protective equipment to its employees — and requiring workers who have come in contact with positive or suspected coronavirus cases to report to work.

“VA facilities are using personal protective equipment in accordance with CDC guidelines, and all employees have the appropriate PPE, as per those guidelines,” Noel said. “Per CDC guidance and VA protocols, employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms are immediately isolated to prevent potential spread to others.”

AFGE also accused the department of failing to implement the controls needed to prevent exposure to the virus.

“It has not implemented engineering controls, such as high efficiency air filters or air scrubbers, to minimize the airborne nature of COVID-19,” the OSHA complaint reads. “Administrative controls, such as mandating administrative leave or work-at-home procedures for employees suspected or known to have been exposed to COVID-19 patients or those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, are likewise absent from VA’s response to this pandemic.”

As of Monday, VA tracked 2,866 cases among veterans across the country, according to the department’s public data. Not all veterans are being treated within VA inpatient facilities.

At least 185 VA employees had confirmed coronavirus cases of March 27.

AFGE had similar claims for the Bureau of Prisons, where at least 24 federal employees have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the union’s OSHA complaint.

Specifically, the union said BOP employees were being directed to return to work after 48 hours of coming into contact with a confirmed or suspected coronavirus case, not the customary 14-day quarantine.

The National Treasury Employees Union on Tuesday raised its own safety concerns with recent actions from Customs and Border Protection.

According to the union, local CBP ports of entry informed employees Monday of their plans to rescind previously-agreed to weather and safety leave schedules.

Theses schedules varied by specific port of entry, the union said. In general, many CBP ports reached local agreements in late March, where some employees spent 32 hours at their duty stations and eight hours a week on weather and safety leave. Employees on leave could be recalled at any time to return to their duty stations if the need had arisen, the union said.

The new schedules allowed CBP to implement “social distancing” guidance in a sense by limiting the number of employees in a particular space, especially as international travel volume decreased.

Weather and safety leave schedules also gave CBP officers some time off to care for their children who are at home due to coronavirus-related school closures, NTEU said Tuesday in a letter to acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

“The temporarily revised work schedules in CBP’s [Office of Field Operations] that enabled more time off for officers represented CBP at its best, responding to a crisis,” Tony Reardon, the union’s national president, said in the letter. “The adjustments were the product of urgent discussions between employee representatives and management, with the twin goals of delivering the mission while promoting the health of the officers.”

It’s unclear what prompted CBP to rescind weather and safety leave schedules for its officers.

“Officers are being told that Border Patrol needs support,” Reardon said in the letter. “We have seen no objective data to support that claim. I am asking that you provide any to that effect.”

CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At least 160 CBP employees have tested positive for coronavirus as of April 5, according to the agency’s public data. That total covers the entire agency, not just the Office of Field Operations where NTEU has its members.