Federal Employee Union Proposes Preconditions to Returning to Government Work Sites

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The American Federation of Government Employees last week called the Trump administration’s recently unveiled plans for “reopening” the federal government “premature and imprudent.”

The nation’s largest union representing federal employees last week called for a series of preconditions that must be met before agencies begin recalling employees to their normal worksites as the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

The American Federation of Government Employees sent letters to acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought and acting Office of Personnel Management Director Michael Rigas last week, calling recent guidance from both officials on how federal agencies should begin bringing federal workers back to physical offices “premature and imprudent.”

AFGE National President Everett Kelley wrote: “These guidelines would, if implemented too soon, worsen the crisis, and unnecessarily expose millions of Americans to illness and potentially, to death. Human life is precious, and we must protect the health and safety of our government workforce.”

In recent weeks, a number of agencies have come under criticism from their workforces over their efforts to maintain services without adequate worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

Kelley highlighted a number of steps AFGE said must be taken before agencies can begin phasing out the Trump administration’s current maximized telework posture, chief among them universal COVID-19 testing.

“Epidemiologists are unanimous that nationwide universal testing is the best way to identify risk and take action to isolate those who have been in contact with infected individuals,” Kelley wrote. “Only with universal testing will it be possible to implement prudent policies for the use of public transportation, for social distancing inside federal offices and other worksites, and other appropriate precautions, especially those that involve direct interaction with the general public.”

Agency decisions to bring employees back to normal worksites should be “apolitical [and] science-based,” Kelley said.

“Epidemiologists and other public health experts recommend the standard of 14 days of exponential decline in new cases within a region before easing quarantine and shelter-at-home restrictions,” he wrote. “For federal employees, the region should be defined by commuting area.”

Kelley also called on OPM and OMB to reverse course on plans to open federal offices in phases based on employees’ relative risk to serious health outcomes from contracting coronavirus. And he said that agencies must provide sufficient personal protective equipment to workers, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and hand-washing facilities.

“[In your guidance], you suggest that healthy workers under the age of 65 be treated differently from so-called ‘vulnerable populations,’” Kelley wrote. “This is contradicted by abundant evidence that even healthy workers under the age of 65 are vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19 . . . Recognizing that all federal employees are vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, we urge a return policy that treats all workers equally with full accommodation provided to anyone who needs further measures to ensure that individual’s safety and health.”

Additionally, Kelley said that agencies must have “strict policies” ensuring that any federal worker who develops symptoms of the coronavirus be sent home immediately on paid leave, and officials should employ contact tracing to ensure any who also may have been exposed to the virus can work remotely or receive weather and safety leave for at least 14 days. And he wrote that agencies must bargain with federal employee unions before implementation of policies to bring workers back to the workplace.

“These six preconditions must be met prior to any 'opening up' of federal worksites,” Kelley wrote. “I trust that you value the lives and well-being of the federal workforce and all Americans. While I understand the eagerness to return to normal operations, as leaders we must display the wisdom and prudence necessary for those who rely upon us for guidance and good judgment.”