The status of 300,000 Federal workers in the National Capital Region, who have been telecommuting due to the coronavirus, remains up in the air even as the virus continues to surge in most of the country.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing these workers, is concerned that the Trump Administration will reopen the offices of several government agencies in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia where state and local public-health officials are urging that employees workers continue to work from home until further notice.
Senators Argue Against
On July 9, the four U.S. Senators from Maryland and Virginia—all Democrats—wrote the Acting Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Russell T. Vought, and his counterpart at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Michael J. Rigas, that reopening prematurely "threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of Federal employees and everyone else in an agency's region through increased community spread."
"We write to express our opposition to plans to require many federal employees in the National Capital Region to return to their worksites," wrote Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and their Virginia colleagues, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. "The current guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is encouraging these unsafe actions, and we urge you to issue new guidance to better protect the federal workforce and surrounding communities from the increasing spread of COVID-19."
On April 20, OMB issued guidance for a three-phased reopening contingent on two weeks of declining reports of flu and COVID-19 symptoms; 14 days of declining confirmed cases of the coronavirus; and sufficient room at area hospitals to treat the disease and the availability of testing for health-care workers.
At the time, OMB and OPM stated any reopening of Federal offices would be "a calibrated re-alignment of various Federal activities" that would be done "in partnership with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and the private sector." The agencies also pledged "to the maximum extent possible" to factor in "local conditions."
Not the Ideal Time
Presently, conditions run contrary to those criteria, with COVID-19 on the rise in 41 states, and several in the South and West, including Texas and Florida, regularly reporting shockingly high totals.
The Beltway teleworking controversy is playing out as President Trump continues to pressure school systems to reopen fully in the fall despite soaring COVID hospitalizations and deaths.
He has cast resistance to this call as a ploy by his Democratic opponents to further damage the economy as the nation heads into the Nov. 3 election.
Recently, aides to the President have sought to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top immunologist, for being critical of the states that reopened their economies without meeting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Shortly before those attempts began, Mr. Trump told reporters that he planned to have the CDC review its school-reopening guidance because he believed its criteria were too burdensome.
CDC Director Stands Firm
But on July 9, the CDC's Director, Dr. Robert Redfield, said the recommendations would stand.
For tens of thousands of AFGE members with agencies like the Transportation Security Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense, telecommuting was never an option, and ensuring access to personal protective equipment and free virus testing for them have been top priorities for the union.
The AFGE doesn't know how many of its members have succumbed to the virus but it said at least "45 civilian Federal workers have died from COVID-19, including 30 at the Veterans Administration, five at the Defense Department, six at the Transportation Security Administration, and four at the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Thousands have contracted the virus."
AFGE Public Policy Director Jacqueline Simon June 25 told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, "And of course, one infected individual is likely to have transmitted the virus to others, so the number of actual infections will be larger than the number reported by agencies."
She presented a 10-point plan the union wanted the the Federal Government to adopt that included pandemic premium pay retroactice to Jan. 27, when the President declared a national emergency.
Green Light for Benefits
The AFGE wants Federal workers who got the virus on the job to be eligible for an "automatic presumption of workplace illness" and avoid a "potentially lengthy denial and appeals process" concerning benefits and health-care services."
The union maintains that its members should get emergency paid sick leave for civil servants sidelined due to a COVID-19 related illness or who are caring for a family member with a COVID-19 related illness.
the AFGE is also pressing for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue "a temporary standard requiring employers to develop workplace safety plans to protect employees against the coronavirus."
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