Federal Employees News Digest

Feds face needless dangers: Unions slam lack of PPE, other protection

Hundreds of thousands of feds are hard at work—specifically telework—during these fraught times. They’re working offsite to minimize the risks to employees and to agency missions posed by the current novel coronavirus pandemic. Of course, significant dangers remain even as most teleworking feds live under shelter-in-place orders.

But perhaps an equal number of other feds are reporting, even now, to the usual workplaces, their presence needed for mission-critical roles—everyone from national security professionals, to federal first responders, to Department of Veterans Affairs medical personnel. They report as ordered, powerfully loyal to the public and the missions they are committed to serve daily.

Federal employee unions—representing many of the country’s 2.1 million federal employees—acknowledge that many feds, frankly heroes all in the face of the escalating toll of the novel coronavirus, are needed at onsite jobs. But the same employee advocates are blasting the many excessive and often needless virus exposures and other dangers such feds must face.

So much danger that one union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), summarizes the resulting situation in many federal workplaces in a recent statement on coronavirus dangers as simply: “Confusion. Chaos. Fear.”

The upshot of union complaints: Yes, often an in-person presence on-site may be necessary. However, very often that’s not the case—or at a minimum, on-site dangers could be much reduced—if managers and political leadership would make the effort.

In short, severe dangers exist today because of poor planning yesterday, by the current administration and, in some cases, top management. And, even as glaring severe safety problems mount, there remains a foolish push to get feds into the workplace—when working from home or remotely would do just fine, in many cases, for the time being.

Immediate needs: More telework, more PPE

With hundreds of thousands of Americans infected, so far—and a fatality rate headed for at least a thousand per day—federal managers have failed to keep many federal workplaces as safe as possible, but unions and advocates are making it known they see ways to improve matters during the pandemic.

“There remains a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, respirators, and gloves that puts frontline federal employees in danger,” AFGE said in a statement, which also criticized the administration for being weak on moving to more telework.

“While the administration has recently taken steps to encourage the expansion of telework, it was slow to act initially and the actual implementation on the ground has been haphazard and insufficient,” the union said. “Employees are being instructed to telework, then recalled because of issues with IT infrastructure. Some high-risk employees are being asked to come into the office and risk exposure to coronavirus in order to get training on telework because of the administration’s initial delays.”

Another leading federal employee union—the National Treasury Employees Union—likewise hit on the dangers.

“NTEU has been hearing from union members whose states or cities have instituted shelter-in-place or lockdown orders but are being told by their supervisors to head into the office,” Tony Reardon, NTEU’s president, told FEND.

The union objected specifically to a Justice Department action it says puts too little emphasis on reducing risks, and too much on pushing feds to endanger themselves by going to the worksite.

The union cited a recent memo from Attorney General William Barr to state and local law enforcement asking police to let feds with proper ID commute and travel no matter what order is in place.

The memo in question in effect tells law enforcement to permit feds who display work IDs to pass. “In short, the Attorney General has determined that federal employees are exempt from [any shelter in place or like] order and must go into their workplaces if necessary to perform essential functions or complete periodic tasks. NTEU remains concerned about the health of employees who are compelled to travel to work contrary to local shelter-in-place orders,” the union said.

NTEU, like AFGE and other federal employee unions, is pressing for greater use of telework.

"Some agencies have moved to maximum or mandatory telework policies, giving federal employees the ability to work from the safety of their own home while they keep doing the important work of the federal government,” NTEU’s Reardon said. “But there is still room for improvement because policies are being inconsistently applied.”

The union put up a checklist on how feds can protect themselves and invites people to join in email their representatives and demand PPE.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, another major union, is also decrying needless dangers posed by COVID-19—and specifically how in the current chaos, planning and communication for safety and other matters between management and labor appears to have broken down.

“How the VA can simply ignore the structures and communication channels that successfully brought management and workers together in mission for decades, is beyond me,” NFFE President Randy Erwin complained in a March 27 release, slamming the breakdown. “This is about keeping people safe and keeping our veterans healthy. There are no second chances in this business. The message from VA employees and their representatives is simple: Listen to us!”

Report and rectify dangers

Employee unions are in the process of offering management—and the public and Congress—numerous testimonies on safety problems throughout many agencies. AFGE, for instance, conducted its own “internal survey” of feds in recent days, and now reports multiple harrowing instances of added—and often unnecessary—dangers faced by feds who must report to their usual posts.  

“Employees are being denied the use of PPE,” one Veterans Affairs employee at the agency’s H.J. Heinz medical facility in Pennsylvania, said in a survey. “Some have been reduced to tears amid fears of transmitting Covid-19 to loved ones.”

“We were notified by many stores across the U.S. that no extra cleaning has been done,” one fed working at a military grocery store told AFGE. “Employees are working in an unsafe work environment doing high volume sales.” With no government-issued PPE at all, the fed added.

“I was told that if your contact with someone infected was less than 10 minutes, you will be fine,” said another fed—this one a screener with the Transportation Security Administration, confused by the agency’s at least initially lax guidelines. “Where did they find the 10-minute rule? Also, why are officers being told they cannot take a 14-day leave?”

Study past failure, prevent a repeat

Federal employee organizations are focused, for the most part, on quickly improving matters now. They are offering practical information and a way toward greater safety for feds whose work is potentially endangering them. But advocates also correctly call for deeper analysis—and for a correction—of the policy and execution failures leading to a chaotic, and often tragic, outcome.

“The administration should have been preparing for this epidemic by expanding telework opportunities, performing network reliability tests, and ordering massive amounts of PPE,” AFGE said. “[instead], agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs were busy kicking unions out of offices, disbanding joint labor-management cooperation teams including health and safety committees.”

“[The administration was also] forcing employee representatives off government email systems – creating artificial barriers to information flow between frontline employees and management, and making it more difficult for agencies to respond in real time to the needs of employees trying to curb the spread of the disease,” the union added. “This is on top of the administration’s efforts to force out scientists, researchers, and other employees governmentwide…. The administration’s war on workers is now coming back to haunt them.”

One longtime advocate for the public and federal employees—the whistleblower and good-government nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO)—reports identifying mistakes leading up to the current vulnerabilities and dangers in the federal workplace. The group is seeking anonymous tips to identify and rectify the sources of failure in planning.

“If you are aware of an action (or lack of action) taken by the federal government that is making you or your community less safe,” POGO says, offering an online anonymous reporting form, “we want to hear about it.”

“Conflicting messages … make it harder for the public to know how serious the risks are and what to do,” POGO said in a recent report. The president, it said, “has been a source of inaccurate and misleading messages on the coronavirus, often at odds with government experts.”

Another major good-government watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), is echoing POGO and the major fed union concerns in criticizing poor government planning for the pandemic—endangering feds and the public alike. But the group is digging deeper, into why planning that had been underway was inexplicably reduced in recent years.

“The Department of Homeland Security reportedly stopped updating its annual pandemic planning models in 2017, leaving the government scrambling to respond to the coronavirus with a patchwork of documents,” CREW stated in a release. “The public deserves to know why DHS discontinued updating these models, which has hampered the response to the pandemic, and whether any outside influence was brought to bear.”

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2020 Digital Almanac

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