Democratic Senators Introduce Bill to Include Feds in Coronavirus Response Decisions

Sen. Brian Schatz speaks about the coronavirus March 3, 2020.

Sen. Brian Schatz speaks about the coronavirus March 3, 2020. Alex Brandon/AP

A task force of administration and union officials would make recommendations for how agencies should protect workers during the pandemic.

A group of six Democratic senators on Wednesday introduced legislation to ensure federal employees have input into how agencies respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Federal Labor-Management COVID Partnership Act (S. 4347), introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, would establish a task force of federal officials and representatives from unions and other federal employee groups to review agencies’ policies related to the COVID-19 emergency and make recommendations. It also establishes a governmentwide directive for agencies to consult with federal employee unions when developing and implementing pandemic-related policies.

Among the policies under the task force’s purview would be telework, leave, cleaning, training and the availability of personal protective equipment. The bill also orders agencies to create their own labor-management councils to develop workforce policies during the pandemic, effectively temporarily reviving collaborative bodies last employed under the Obama administration.

The main task force would be made up of the director of the Office of Personnel Management, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the assistant Labor secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, the chairwoman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, five representatives from federal employee unions and one representative from the Federal Managers Association.

Since the start of the pandemic, federal employees have complained about an initially haphazard response from agency leaders, reporting that agencies were slow to adopt widespread telework programs, robust cleaning programs at federal facilities, and a paucity of personal protective equipment for federal workers who cannot work remotely. In recent days, federal employee unions have objected to being shut out of the process by which agencies developed reopening plans.

“This bill is about protecting our federal workers during the COVID pandemic,” Schatz said in a statement. “By promoting a constructive dialogue between federal agencies and public servants, these task forces will help make sure the government creates good policy for its workers.”

Cosponsoring the legislation are Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both D-Md..

The bill quickly drew the endorsement of federal employee unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

“[AFGE] strongly supports Sen. Schatz’s legislation to ensure that agencies uphold their legal obligation to negotiate with employee representatives over policies and proposals that directly impact the health and safety of workers and their families,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “Some agencies under this current administration have refused to negotiate with the union over the coronavirus or other workplace matters, making the need for this legislation all the more critical.”

NTEU National President Tony Reardon said that bringing back labor-management partnerships would ensure that federal employees will be able to fulfill agency missions without taking unnecessary risks to their health.

“Federal employees deserve a say in how best to keep them safe at work,” Reardon said. “[NTEU] has always believed that open dialogue between labor and management is the best way to make the workplace run more effectively and efficiently, by preventing problems and resolving conflict. Opposing basic communication and collaboration is a sign that employees are not respected, and we encourage Congress to pass [this bill] as soon as possible.”