Fears about safety of federal works sparks reform effort on Capitol Hill

Legislation introduced in the Senate Wednesday would give federal employees a more direct line to influence government reopening and safety precautions by creating executive-level and agency-level task forces responsible for reviewing and making recommendations on agency response policies.

“This bill is about protecting our federal workers during the COVID pandemic,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in a news release. “By promoting a constructive dialogue between federal agencies and public servants, these task forces will help make sure the federal government creates good policy for its workers.”

The bill would require the task forces to review agency telework, leave, cleaning and training policies, while requiring agency leadership to include employees and unions in their COVID response decision making.

The proposed law, formally known as the Federal Labor-Management COVID Partnership Act, was introduced by Sens. Schatz, Gary Peters, D-Mich., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md..

Federal employee organizations have been highly critical of agency return to work plans, noting that many agencies have insufficient personal protective equipment and plans to deal with exposure and infected employees.

“Some agencies under this current administration have refused to negotiate with the union over the coronavirus or other workplace matters, making the need for this legislation all the more critical,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley in a statement.

Thus far, the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget have stood by initial reopening guidance, which left return-to-work decisions up to agency leadership and offered no concrete metrics for infection rates or safety measures to clear an agency for reopening.

“This is a smart idea from Sen. Schatz and the other co-sponsors because it goes straight to the heart of the matter: federal employees deserve a say in how best to keep them safe at work,” said National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon.

“Federal employees shouldn’t have to risk their lives to do their jobs, and we believe these task forces would help lower that risk while also maintaining productivity.”

The Department of Labor recently reported that it expects to receive over 6,000 claims from federal workers over the next month alleging that they contracted COVID-19 while on the job.

As of mid-June, the Division of Federal Employees' Compensation had already received 2,866 cases, including 48 death claims. Of those that had been adjudicated, over 97 percent were accepted.

The Department of Labor has also taken steps to speed up the claims process for frontline federal workers, presuming that so long as an employee has proof of a COVID diagnosis, they will automatically assume that the virus was contracted on the job for the purposes of compensation eligibility.

Language in the Democrat-led COVID relief package would expand that presumption for any employee whose duties required contact with co-workers, such as those that had to return to the office under agency reopening plans, though the Republican relief package does not include such language.

COVID cases have spiked in recent weeks as more states have loosened restrictions on business closures and social distancing requirements. Agencies like the IRS, Pentagon and others have also begun to recall workers during that time, though some agencies still remain at high levels of telework.

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