White House and Congressional leaders have signaled interest in quickly enacting another Coronavirus relief bill – what would be the fourth – providing another opportunity to enact proposals designed to better protect and compensate federal employees.
While the measure likely would focus mainly on financial relief to individuals and businesses, the continued health concerns for federal employees, especially those in public-facing jobs, could open the way for adding policy changes, as well.
While there is no official count of the number of federal employees who have contracted the virus, reports from just several individual agencies add up to the many hundreds, and there have been at least three confirmed virus-related deaths—two postal employees and a TSA screener.
With Congress on an extended recess that won’t end until April 20, backers of several federal workplace-related provisions from an earlier House proposal will have time to work to incorporate them into the next bill—in contrast to the prior relief bill, which was crafted by the Senate with the House in recess, with the House briefly reconvening just to pass it.
Those provisions would mandate telework by any employee deemed eligible; weather and safety leave for employees prevented from going to their regular work locations but who cannot telework; and hazardous duty pay for employees exposed in the line of duty to persons with COVID-19 or who have been exposed to the Coronavirus. Other provisions would pay up to $2,000 a month to employees who are required to work and incur expenses related to the care of a child or relative who has COVID-19; and create a presumption that an employee carrying out duties that require substantial contact with the public who contract the virus would be eligible for FECA benefits.
In the weeks since those proposals first arose, agencies have continued to increase their use of telework and at least some have been paying weather and safety leave.
Agencies also continue to close buildings – or parts of them, such as day care centers – either completely or just to the public, and DoD for example has issued a general policy that its civilian employees among others in its facilities wear face coverings in settings where they cannot maintain the CDC-recommended six feet of social distancing.
However, federal employees and their organizations continue to raise alarms about lack of protective equipment and cleaning, employees being compelled to continue coming to worksites when they could work remotely, and working conditions that put them in close contact with each other or members of the public.
Most recently, the AFGE union filed OSHA complaints alleging numerous workplace safety violations by the VA and the Bureau of Prisons, and the NTEU union protested the CBP’s decision to cancel an earlier-agreed reduction in the amount of time employees spend in contact with the public and each other.
Meanwhile, there apparently has been no actual use an authority created by one of the earlier virus-related laws, the “Families First” Act, which allows for an additional two weeks of paid sick leave, up to dollar limits, under certain conditions related to the virus.
The Labor Department, which is overseeing that provision in general, has said that many federal employees would qualify for that benefit, which was to be effective April 1, although it has not been specific. Also, OPM still has not issued guidance on the practical aspects of applying for and using that leave.