Why did getting masks to federal employees take so long?

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To watch the endless TV broadcasts, you’d think everyone with a sewing machine is churning out face masks. That’s beside the giant supply in the possession of FEMA. So how come it was so hard to get them distributed, like to those 10,000 IRS employees called back to work. That’s what American University federal management professor Bob Tobias wants to know. He joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

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Tom Temin: And Bob, this did seem like a strange thing because the IRS employees were saying we don’t have any protective gear. Even the IRS said you’re gonna have to bring your own and yet the world seems a awash in facemasks.

Bob Tobias: Well, I already for me, Tom, is that federal employees, by definition work in the national interest, but in this current COVID-19 crisis, where more than 10,000 federal employees have become infected, their physical security is not mandated. And they seem to be at the bottom of the list for mass distribution. You know, if you take a look at the April 20 memorandum that OPM and OMB put out about what agencies are required to do with respect to safety. The memorandum says quote, “agencies are responsible for implementing social distancing procedures to the extent practicable,” close quote, and, quote, “agencies may may make cloth face coverings available for federal employees.” close quote. So there is no mandate for protection. There’s no mandate for distribution. So not surprisingly, the IRS calls back 10,000 employees who are responsible for answering taxpayer questions, distributing the emergency checks, distributing refunds for the tax filing season that runs now through July 15. And told in the message to return bring your own mask, bring your own mask. Now when that became public, and especially called IRS reversed course and said, okay okay okay, we’ll provide you masks, but it wasn’t top of mind and it wouldn’t have occurred but for the press from across the country. And you know the same thing is true in VA, where there are now 6400 VA patients infected, 2000 staff, VA staff who are infected, 20 staff deaths and 400 patient deaths. But with respect to masks, particularly in nursing homes, VA has distributed only the less effective surgical masks, not the N95 masks and as we know, in these nursing homes, there are hotspots across the country. Now they do have the more effective N95 masks for people who work in ICU. And for people who work in emergency rooms but why not N95 masks for people who are working in hotspots. So I can’t understand why federal employees are put last on the list when they are providing the kind of protection and the kind of service that the public so desperately wants and so desperately needs.

Tom Temin: There are other models in the federal government. I’ve got a column actually out and the I spoke with FAAs air traffic controllers, their union, and also the tech ops people, they have a separate union, and they said things weren’t perfectly hunky dory, but they did have very fruitful negotiations with FAA management, and were provided cleaning supplies, cleaning services, and also face masks. Because often controllers and the tech people, they work cheek by jowl in crowded facilities. They’ve also made procedures such that because air traffic is light, they have been able to spread out shifts and spread out people within facility. So there is a better model available, but it just doesn’t seem to be universal across the government.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct. And I think that the FAA currently is one of the models for positive labor management relations in the federal sector. And the fact that they were able to meet together and resolve this matter, I think is a terrific model. But in another represented unit, the TSA employees, if you can imagine, you know what, what it’s like when you go to an airport, not now, but before it was closed down and people are standing in line and the TSA screeners asked for masks and they didn’t get them. And then on April 3, they finally did get masks, but they all had expired dates on them.So the contrast I think, is just incredible. Why doesn’t OMB Why doesn’t OPM issue mandatory instructions to protect the federal workforce?

Tom Temin: I think one of the variables in this is one you alluded to and that is in the case of NTEU and AFGE before this outbreak they were battling over a lots of things over contracts over working conditions over hiring and firing over telework before this became an issue in a widespread way. And so the relations were not that good to begin with Social Security Administration you can throw them in too, whereas as you pointed out, FAA generally has good relations with it’s much tinier unions that are representing the air traffic controllers and the tech ops people.

Bob Tobias: I think you’re onto something there, Tom. There have been times in the history of labor management relations in the federal sector where the relationships between unions and those they represent and federal managers has been much better. And in those times, there have been higher agency productivity, but that’s not the case now. So in a time of crisis, when a sound trusting relationship is necessary to manage the fast changing environment associated with a crisis, you don’t have it.

Tom Temin: On the other hand, even if union relations are bad, nevertheless, they’re still your employees. And if there’s a situation that’s unprecedented like this, you should almost put that aside and say, just get the GD masks in because the people need them.

Bob Tobias: Exactly. The idea that a federal agency would say, bring your own mask is just staggering to me. The callousness is staggering.

Tom Temin: Alright, so what do we do about it at this point?

Bob Tobias: Well, I think that the only thing that we can do about it is to publicize it, because the IRS responded to the adverse publicity, TSA responded to the adverse publicity. So I think that the best antidote here and perhaps the only antidote here is a publicity because filing a grievance or an unfair labor practice charge. You know, three years later, something some decision might issue, but the crisis will have long pass.

Tom Temin: You know, I remember many, many years. years ago, when I covered a small town hall in New England, this town supplied water to the next town over part of its water. And the next town over was having a dispute with my town that I was covering on the terms and conditions of the water supply. And what happened was the second town the buyer of the water, had a problem with pollution of its own water, and therefore needed more. And I remember the selectmen, the chairman of the board of selectmen said, we’re going to put aside the dispute those people are thirsty, let’s give them the water they need right now and we’ll figure out the terms and conditions later. I never forgot that. He said they’re thirsty now.

Bob Tobias: Yes, yes. They’re dying now, Tom. They’re dying now. And they don’t have masks, give the masks.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. Thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.