Since the start of the pandemic, the unions representing hundreds of thousands of essential Federal workers have been unsuccessful in their efforts to get the Trump administration to disclose the number of members sidelined or killed due to their exposure to the coronavirus.
But the Washington Post has uncovered some preliminary data on the heavy toll the virus has taken and it prompted Members of Congress to renew their call for something like the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund for essential workers.
3,500 Valid Claims
Close to 3,500 Federal civil servants have collected on claims linked to their contracting COVID-19 while on the job, the Post reported, citing data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The program is administered under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, and has also provided survivor benefits to the families of 14 Federal employees whose deaths were linked to the virus.
An additional 2,600 Federal workplace claims are still being reviewed, including 68 applications for the death benefit.
According to the newspaper, the latest data released by the government reflects "a continuing rise in infections among federal workers amid the general increase nationwide, in which the death toll has now crossed 250,000, even as large numbers of federal employees continue to work remotely."
"I am relieved that federal workers will get the compensation they need and deserve after returning to work and contracting COVID-19," wrote U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. "Now, we need to pass my Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act to ensure that all essential workers and their families can get compensation if they or their loved ones become sick because they were called in to work."
'Should Be Compensated'
Rep. Bill Pascrell, chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, said in a statement, "Any workers sickened by the government's incompetence, especially our front-line first-responders, should be adequately compensated, and families who lost loved ones should receive survivor benefits. When this [President] is blessedly ejected on January 20, 2021, there must be an accounting of how many lives were lost in the rush to reopen."
"This data confirms our oft-expressed concerns that the Trump Administration was rushing to reopen Federal agencies without a plan," Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, told the Post.
"There should be a nationwide bill, let's call it a COVID-19 Victims Compensation Fund, to take care of the essential workers—not a state-by-state approach like the way the Federal Government wanted to handle the coronavirus—and that failed miserably," said Michael Barasch, a leading 9/11 WTC attorney. "If we don't take care of them now, what essential worker would risk their life in the next pandemic?"
Paula Schelling, who leads the American Federation of Government Employees' National Joint Council, which represents Food Safety Inspectors, believes the actual number of Federal workers affected by COVID could be much higher than the Department of Labor total.
'600-700 Here Alone'
"Just within the Food Safety Inspection Service there's got to be 600 to 700 people I know of that have contracted COVID and have been out on leave and we have had five deaths out of a bargaining unit of 6,500," Ms. Schelling said during a Nov. 24 phone interview.
Early in the pandemic, the nation's meatpacking plants, with their high-density processing lines, were cited by public-health officials as coronavirus hot spots.
The industry resisted testing and disclosure of the workplace infection rates and enlisted President Trump's help. He invoked the Defense Production Act, which required that the processing plants remain open despite local health concerns.
"At one point in New York State, we had inspectors that were wearing masks when they went into the plants because of what was happening, and they were told by the Food Safety Inspection Service Headquarters, 'You do not wear a mask if you come to a plant—we don't need to scare those plant employees,'" she said.
Union officials are frustrated about the lack of information about members who are sidelined or worse. "You are either finding out about a death by word of mouth on the street as a citizen or when you go into the plant," Ms. Schelling said, lamenting the impact deaths have on an entire family.
'Didn't Want to Tell Her'
"Take the death of one of our inspectors in the Chicago area," she said. "He was in ICU and passed away there. But the day before he passed away, his wife had to be admitted to ICU and was in a coma for two weeks and they didn't know when to tell her husband had passed away."
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, as of last month, 128 meat-processing workers had died from the virus, with another 20,000 either infected or exposed.
According to the Post, the Defense Department has reported 16,582 total infections, "with 70 deaths—about triple the number of infections and double the number of deaths from late July."
The Veterans Affairs Department reported 8,211 cases, the Transportation Security Administration 2,891, and Customs and Border Protection 3,294.
"Compared with late July, for each agency that was about double the number of cases, while deaths increased from 40 to 69 at VA, from six to nine at TSA and from eight to 13 at CBP," the newspaper reported. "The U.S. Postal Service said it has had 17,575 cases but does not count deaths."
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