COVID protections for CBP frontline workers
- By Nathan Abse
- Jun 26, 2020
Customs and Border Protection is in dire need of emergency funds due to the COVID-caused plummet in trans-border traffic and user fees. However, better on-site employee testing and protections are also needed, according to both the chief of the organization and the top union representing the agency’s employees.
“At the top of the list of ongoing challenges is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” CBP Chief Operating Officer and acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan testified in Congress June 25.
“Make no mistake,” he said, “any individual arriving at our borders -- with or without symptoms -- is a potential risk to our frontline personnel, healthcare workers, the American people, our communities, and even the U.S. healthcare system itself.”
Morgan noted that CBP has experience dealing with outbreaks of other communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, SARS and Ebola. “The infectious disease procedures we already had in place enabled us to implement the President’s vision quickly and effectively,” he said.
Morgan said he believes the White House’s efforts to reduce the flow of migrants had made the pandemic easier to manage, pointing to tougher policies, the building of many more miles of border wall and other factors.
“From the outset of the global pandemic, President Trump has taken bold actions to protect the health and safety of the American people,” Morgan said. “This has undoubtedly saved lives and slowed the spread here at home.”
The National Treasury Employees Union -- which represents tens of thousands of CBP employees and often takes a more jaundiced view of White House policy -- has been transmitting its own deep concerns about COVID’s effects on the workforce.
The union has been critical of the White House and CBP’s political management, pointing up the large numbers of officers who have been sickened by COVID -- over 600, so far -- and the continuing lack of adequate PPE for employees.
“Throughout the pandemic, most international air, sea, and land ports of entry remained open and are staffed by CBP Office of Field Operations employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year,” NTEU President Tony Reardon testified in Congress recently. “There are unique, ongoing challenges to make sure health and safety precautions at all CBP worksites are comprehensive and effective. As international trade and travel struggles to return to normal, our CBP members deserve every possible safety precaution CBP can implement.”
Reardon and his union recently called for COVID-19 testing of employees and contact tracing as well as “increased cleaning of all terminals and work areas, including shared vehicles; staggering lanes; cleaning booths between Officer rotations, not just between shifts; plexiglass barriers in primary booths; ample supplies of personal protective equipment; and safety suits for employees who enter confined spaces such as cargo holds.”
The union estimates that user fee shortfall, so far, is around $400 million -- and that the agency needs $1.5 billion to cover expected losses through the end of fiscal year 2021.