Coronavirus infections are rising for federal employees who have continued to work at their official duty stations, raising yet more concerns about protections for them and about the risks of continued recalls of employees to those worksites even amid an overall rise in infections nationwide.
At DHS, one of the primary public-facing agencies where large numbers of employees have continued regular duties for the last four months, the infection rate is rising “at an alarming rate” and is the highest since the department began reporting figures to the House Homeland Security Committee in March, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, chair of that panel, said last Friday.
“The number of employees who are in quarantine or self-isolating has similarly continued to rise, with a 27 percent increase in the last two weeks alone . . . in the last two weeks CBP saw a 52 percent increase in positive COVID-19 cases while TSA saw a 43 percent increase,” he said in a letter to the department.
CBP’s latest data show just under 1,200 employee infections and five deaths; and the TSA reported just over 1,000 and six. Thompson added that data reported to the committee show a 10-fold rise in cases in the Secret Service in recent weeks—with more in quarantine because of potential exposure—although specific numbers were not divulged.
Similar concerns continue regarding the two other largest federal agencies, DoD and VA, which along with DHS account for about two-thirds of non-postal federal employees. The latest data from the DoD show above 3,400 cases among its civilian employees and 23 deaths. A DoD official said at a recent briefing that among its federal employees “we’re seeing some upticks in the same places there are upticks in the civilian sector.”
The VA’s most recent count is 38 employee deaths, nearly 1,400 active cases and nearly 2,400 more in quarantine, according to Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“We remain concerned to hear reports that VA frontline medical employees still do not feel adequately supported to conduct their jobs safely—including having access to appropriate personal protective equipment. Employees have also noted a lack of hazard pay in recognition of their daily risk of working in hospitals with covid-19 patients,” he and several colleagues said in a letter asking VA to explain its policies on that pay, retention incentives and other allowances relating to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the senators representing Virginia and Maryland, last week urged the administration not to recall any more employees from telework or leave out of concerns about their safety both at work and during commuting, for those who use public transit. Federal employee unions have been expressing those same views for months, most recently in a letter to Congress from the NTEU and in testimony by the AFGE.
The chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., has suggested that Congress might include language to prevent more recalls to an upcoming bill such as pandemic relief bill that Congress seems increasingly likely to pass before its August recess. A measure the House passed two months ago (HR-6800) among other things would create a presumption that all employees who can telework should continue to do so until certain standards were met.
There would be other possibilities, as well, but none of them likely would reach final form at least until September.