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5 ways Congress can help federal workers on the coronavirus front lines

They’re keeping our government running amid a national crisis. They deserve more protection

Passengers go through TSA screening at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on April 2.
Passengers go through TSA screening at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on April 2. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Congress has moved swiftly in recent weeks to approve historic levels of emergency funding to help our country withstand the coronavirus pandemic. Yet more help is needed for the federal workers who are on the front lines of this rapidly evolving health crisis.

The most essential thing our members need right now is an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE — things such as masks, gloves, gowns and hand sanitizer. This will help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our VA hospitals, at airport security checkpoints, inside our federal prisons, and other places where our members interact with the public.

The president should use the Defense Protection Act to ensure that sufficient quantities of PPE are manufactured, sold at a fair price and delivered to all those whose work exposes them to possible infection.

But there are additional actions that will also help. Here are five things Congress should do right now to protect federal employees and the communities they serve:

1. Restore labor-management relations

Federal unions like the American Federation of Government Employees have been sidelined during the coronavirus because of the administration’s hostility toward labor unions and collective bargaining rights — highlighted by the issuance of three anti-labor executive orders in May 2018. By tearing up our contracts and preventing unions from collaborating with management, the administration has silenced the voice of front-line workers at a time when their and their families’ health and safety is hanging in the balance.

2. Mandate telework or safety leave

Although the administration has encouraged agencies to maximize employee telework to help minimize the spread of the virus, not all agencies are following this guidance. Congress therefore must require all agencies to expand telework to all employees who can perform their duties remotely. If employees can’t perform their work from an alternate location and their jobs aren’t considered essential, they should be placed on weather and safety leave. Workers who need to care for their children, but have been denied telework by their agencies, should be granted weather and safety leave as well. The use of such leave will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by keeping nonessential federal employees at home.

3. Require presumption of workplace illness. 

Federal workers are exposing themselves to the coronavirus every day they report to work due to a lack of adequate protective equipment, training and guidance. Shortcomings in current leave policies also result in sick or high-risk employees being required to report to work when they should be at home. Congress should amend the federal workers’ compensation law to automatically cover federal employees who contract COVID-19 during the performance of their official duties. Providing an automatic presumption of workplace illness will help federal employees receive the care and services they are entitled to without facing administrative hurdles.

4. Permit changes to workers’ health insurance plans

Many part-time federal employees — including TSA security officers, Pentagon commissary workers and FEMA reservists, who are dealing with the public on a daily basis — opt out of the federal government’s health insurance program due to the prohibitive cost. Congress should amend current law to allow a public health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic to be considered as a “qualifying life event,” which would allow unenrolled federal employees to purchase coverage and allow current enrollees to make changes to their existing plans.

5. Approve hazardous duty pay

Federal agencies are violating existing law by failing to provide hazard pay to employees who are required to report to work and risk exposure to COVID-19 through the performance of their duties. Employees who are working at veterans’ and military hospitals, federal prisons, airports, military depots and arsenals, and other locations should be guaranteed hazardous duty pay because they are in immediate danger of exposure.

These requests may not seem as vital as distributing personal protective equipment and ramping up production of COVID-19 tests, but they are critical to ensuring the health and safety of the front-line federal workers who are keeping our government running during these unprecedented times.

Everett Kelley is the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which is the largest union representing federal and D.C. government workers.

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