AFGE confirms 600 COVID-19 deaths, stresses safety in office reentry plans

The Biden administration is setting expectations for the federal workforce and bringing more employees back to the office, as the country navigates a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The largest federal employee union, however, says it’s taking steps to ensure bargaining unit employees can return to the office safely and seeking redress for members who were exposed to COVID-19 at work.

At least nine agencies have detailed office reentry plans over the past month,...

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The Biden administration is setting expectations for the federal workforce and bringing more employees back to the office, as the country navigates a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The largest federal employee union, however, says it’s taking steps to ensure bargaining unit employees can return to the office safely and seeking redress for members who were exposed to COVID-19 at work.

At least nine agencies have detailed office reentry plans over the past month, after President Joe Biden called for the “vast majority” of federal employees to return to in-person work by the end of April.

While more agencies are likely to follow suit, the American Federation of Government Employees is negotiating with agency leadership to keep workplace flexibilities and telework available.

AFGE is seeking hazardous duty pay and hazardous overtime for front-line employees exposed to COVID-19 at work.

AFGE National President Everett Kelley, speaking Monday at the union’s annual legislative conference, said more than 600 members have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The union’s confirmed death toll is likely an undercount, and based on an online survey form on AFGE’s website, reflecting the challenge of getting a complete picture of the pandemic’s impact on the federal workforce.

In light of these statistics, Kelley said AFGE continues to negotiate with agency leadership over the health and safety provisions that serve as the foundation for collective bargaining over office reentry.

“This brings about so much stress to the workforce, having to come to work, and they can take all the safety precautions, but then they still walk into situations where many times their coworkers are not safe. And so it brings on a lot of stress,” Kelley said Monday.

Given the variety of agencies that AFGE represents, Kelley said it’s “virtually impossible to have a uniform policy,” on office reentry.

Agency reentry plans reviewed by Federal News Network vary considerably on the specifics.

Some detail a phased reentry to the office, outline post-office telework expectations, and even the possibility of expanded remote work, an option where federal employees are rarely expected to work in an office.

“It’s hard for me to say when I would like to see everybody back in the workplace, because every situation is different. More than anything, I want to see an assurance that the agency is going to take the reentry very seriously, and listen and get input from our union and negotiate in a fair manner,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he expects a higher than average rate of retirements among federal employees in the coming months “because of the uncertainty” of what the office reentry plan will mean for them.

While agencies have almost universally envisioned a “future of work” approach to their offices after employees return to the office, few have detailed the specifics of their future workplaces, and expect that the future will come into focus as agencies better understand their office space needs.

Meanwhile, AFGE is pressing agencies to keep expanded telework policies in place as more federal employees show up at the office.

“Prior to the pandemic, I hated the thought of remote work. But during this pandemic, it’s taught me some things. It taught me that every ounce of work that need to have gotten done in my organization got done — and actually, production improved,” Kelley said.

Kelley said AFGE isn’t aware of any federal employee being separated from their agency for not complying with the federal employee vaccine mandate.

“No one has been terminated, and it is my hope that no one would ever be terminated,” he said.

AFGE has also filed a class-action lawsuit for employees who think they were exposed to COVID-19 at work, and has created a website where federal employees can join.

AFGE General Counsel David Borer said thousands of unions members have already signed up to participate in the lawsuit, but it could take years for the lawsuit to be settled.

“We’re hopeful that at some point, folks who had to work throughout the pandemic and couldn’t go home, especially the ones who are exposed because of their work, they should receive that compensation,” Borer said.

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