The leader of the largest union of Federal employees warned Congress June 16 that the Trump Administration's rush to reopen the Department of Homeland Security's operations without implementing basic COVID-19 precautions would put his members at risk of contracting the deadly virus.
"As a consequence, instead of stopping the spread of COVID-19, the government itself will contribute to the continuation and possible worsening of the pandemic," American Federation Government Employees President Everett Kelley testified at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Report Surge in Cases
His warning came as WebMD reported that new coronavirus cases continued to surge in more than a dozen states in the South and West, where tens of thousands of DHS staffers live and work.
In Texas, public-health officials reported record numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations in major cities like Dallas, Austin and Houston.
Spikes were also reported in states like South Carolina, Arizona and Oregon, where Gov. Kate Brown was so alarmed by the surge in new cases that she postponed plans to ease restrictions.
Federal agencies where employees have died of the virus included the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Transportation Security Administration.
Mr. Kelley testified that without "firm data on the number of DHS employees who have contracted the virus" the union had no way on knowing how many of its employees had died from COVID-19.
New Cases at Airports
"TSA reports that infections among its workforce number 667 and five TSA employees and one TSA contractor have died from the virus," he said. "TSA also reports that over the past two weeks, 19 airports have reported the existence of new infections. We do not have data on infections or deaths from the other DHS components, but it is reasonable to believe that there are large numbers of infections."
The most-detailed guidance from the Trump Administration for restoring government operations to pre-pandemic levels was an April 22 directive from the Office of Management and Budget. Its plan featured a phased-in regional reopening strategy contingent on 14 days of declining numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and the availability of sufficient capacity at local hospitals to treat all cases without resorting to crisis triage.
Forty-eight hours after OMB released its guidance, Dr. Kelley had written the agency about gaps in it and urging the agency to encourage managers to constructively engage with AFGE locals on their reopening plans.
"I emphasized my view that the administration's efforts to promote reopening were premature and imprudent," he testified. "It is now almost nine weeks later, and in states that reopened too early such as Texas and Florida, the data are showing a resurgence of the pandemic. We are not seeing, however, a reversion to 'stay at home' directives that are supposed to precede any reopening."
Demands Testing for All
He demanded that the Federal workforce have access to universal testing, that the reopening decisions be guided by science, that employees with pre-existing medical conditions be accommodated, and that all worksites have sufficient personal protective equipment and be properly disinfected.
The AFGE also called for contact tracing to monitor the health status of Federal employees to ensure that those who came into contact with a symptomatic colleague would be entitled to work from home or avail themselves of safety leave for a minimum of 14 days.
The union represents employees in several DHS agencies, including Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the TSA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and the Federal Marshals Service.
Throughout the pandemic, most of those workers reported to their regular duty stations, while about 20 percent worked remotely or were on some form of leave.
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