TSA'S FIRST CASUALTY: Explosive Detection Canine Handler Frank Boccabella, 39, April 2 became the first of several Transportation Security Administration officers to die from the coronavirus. The American Federation of Government Employees had been demanding personal protective equipment for those workers since mid-March, but it wasn't provided by the TSA until earlier this month. The union continues to seek access to COVID-19 testing for all members.

The Trump Administration's full-court press to drive unions out of the Federal workplace inadvertently helped to spread the COVID-19 virus, putting both civil servants and the public at greater risk, according to Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"This administration had taken away the ability of management and the union to work together to resolve issues," he said in a wide-ranging phone interview May 15. "And I believe that if that had not happened, we would not have seen the extreme spread of this infection. The agencies across the board have denied us the opportunity for management and the union to partner together as we have done in the past to resolve issues."

Put Lid on Release Time

In a series of executive orders in May 2018, Mr. Trump sought to dramatically reduce the presence of unions in the Federal workplace by targeting release time, which permits union representatives, who are also Federal employees, to represent their co-workers during regular business hours.

Some Federal agencies including the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, implemented the executive orders.

Agencies have also pre-empted the collective-bargaining process by having impasses declared without substantial negotiations taking place, then imposing new contracts.

Mr. Kelley said the administration's open hostility to unions was a dramatic departure from the tone and tenor of both Republican and Democrat Presidents since the early 1960s, when President Kennedy gave Federal employees bargaining rights.

'Hell-Bent on Busting Us' 

"Up until this administration there was a kind of collaboration, a kind of understanding" and mutual respect, no matter which political party controlled the White House, Mr. Kelley observed. "But it appears this administration is hell-bent on busting unions so that there are no checks and balances."

Throughout the pandemic, the administration has rebuffed the union's efforts to slow the spread of the virus, rejecting calls for personal protective equipment and employee testing, he said.

Weeks before COVID-19 got traction in states like New York and the nation's congregate-care facilities, it showed up in the air-transportation sector even as President Trump repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, comparing it to the flu.

On March 10, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration used a tweet to announce that "three Transportation Security Officers who work at Mineta San Jose International Airport have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus."

Four days earlier, officials confirmed that two British Airways baggage-handlers at London's Heathrow Airport had tested positive for coronavirus, requiring the testing of their co-workers.

AFGE Weighed In Early

On March 12, AFGE blasted the TSA for not doing enough to protect officers and the flying public from COVID-19.

It called upon TSA Administrator David Pekoske to provide workers on the "front-line" with N95 protective masks.

"Despite our union's numerous requests for adequate masks and protective equipment, TSA has failed to properly equip our officers with the resources they need to prevent infection," Mr. Kelley said in a statement at the time.

The agency denied the request.

It was not until May 7, after several TSA screeners had died, that the agency implemented an on-the-job mask requirement, a policy that private-sector airline carriers began adopting weeks earlier.

On April 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rescinded its initial COVID-19 guidance against members of the public wearing masks, noting that additional research had revealed that 25 percent of those with the coronavirus showed no symptoms but could easily spread the  disease.

'Speaking, Coughing, Sneezing'

"This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms," the agency said in a statement. "In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

Mr. Kelley said his union had entered the kind of fight it had with the TSA over personal protective equipment, but this round was about getting the tens of thousands of TSA workers tested for the COVID-19, something he claimed the agency still resisted, even as transit agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit had embraced it.

"These airport screeners might be infected and not know it because they are not testing them," he said. "This means that as the flying public comes through every day that passes, the virus can get passed on that way."

The AFGE has had to fight similar battles across the nation with multiple Federal agencies, he said.

'Don't Want to Know'

Congregate-living facilities operated by the VA and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons have been hotbeds for the deadly virus, which is particularly lethal for those with pre-existing health conditions. There have been well over a thousand veteran and inmate COVID-19 deaths, and dozens of Federal workers have perished in the past several weeks.

"It appears that they [Trump administration] don't want to know the truth at this point," Mr. Kelley said. "It has come to the point where in this administration where we have agency heads telling their subordinates, 'I don't want you to tell me how many deaths there are,' which continues to put our members and their families lives at risk."

He contended that "denial as a strategy" was not confined to the Federal Government.

In Nebraska, Mr. Kelley said, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has refused to disclose the COVID-19 employee infection rates in meat-packing plants even though across the country such plants have proven to be incubators for to the virus.

'Hiding It No Solution'

"He was hiding the infection rate from the public and that does not make the infection go away," Dr. Kelley said. "If anything, it helps this deadly virus spread, by giving the public a false sense of security."

The USDA has disclosed that as of May 5, 197 Federal meat inspectors had been infected, with deaths reported in New York, Illinois, Mississippi and Kansas.

The AFGE represents 6,500 meat and poultry inspectors across the country.

We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.


(1) comment


The reasoning behind these responses to the virus most likely started out as ignorance but undoubtedly became the basis of a strategy. It wouldn't be the first time a large organization put employees at risk and withheld information in order to keep operations moving. If you speak to union workers this tale would be told over and over. Testing has been an issue throughout this. These organizations didn't want to find out if the workers were sick. If they provided testing and a majority were positive how would these jobs get done. The staffing nightmare created was enough to discourage these organizations from pushing for tests. The various union officials were the ones who needed to push for member testing from the start. A glance across the landscape showed some did and some were more successful than others. I don't agree with not testing your people because the asymptomatic positives are the ones putting everyone at risk. Even if your employee demographics are not comprised of an overly abundant group of at risk individuals the employees still have mothers, and spouses, and children. Any organization that dragged their feet with testing did so in the interest of daily operations. They put the mission before the soldiers, it's a harsh reality but not one I see going any different next time around. Attention Union leaders! While this is to be expected, it is your responsibility to address it. Call them out early and fight for workers rights this is why members pay their dues why your position exists.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.