The largest federal employee union filed complaints with the Department of Labor April 7 against the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Bureau of Prisons alleging that the agencies haven’t adequately protected employees from the coronavirus.
The American Federation of Government Employees filed a complaint with DoL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that both agencies have directed staff who came into contact with people showing symptoms of the virus to continue to report to work instead of spending 14 days in self-quarantine, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend.
At the VA, the union alleged that the department failed to provide workers with proper N-95 respirator masks and other protective equipment. It also alleged that the VA failed to isolate suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, while also refusing to provide COVID-19 tests to exposed employees. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Christina Noel, press secretary for the VA, pushed back against the union’s allegations. Noel said VA employees exhibiting symptoms are “immediately” isolated and that VA facilities are using personal protective equipment in accordance with CDC guidelines.
“All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain,” Noel said.
AFGE accused the Bureau of Prisons of moving inmates confirmed to have or exposed to COVID-19 to areas of the country without infections. It also alleges that the bureau has continued to allow the inmates to gather in groups and hasn’t provided proper N-95 masks to custodial staff or officers transporting inmates with the virus.
In a statement, Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Justin Long said that “takes seriously” its duty to protect inmates and staff.
“The BOP has recently responded to several inquiries from OSHA concerning COVID-19,” Long said in a statement. “Working with OSHA and the union are two important opportunities the BOP has to evaluate its efforts to keep staff safe and mitigate risks associated with COVID-19.”
According to a news release, the complaints were filed by AFGE Council 53, which represents 260,000 employees at the VA, and Council 33, which represents 30,000 employees at the Bureau of Prisons.
“The federal government is failing to do everything it can to protect workers who are on the front lines of this health-care crisis, and in some cases it is willfully doing the opposite – exposing not only workers but vulnerable populations to this deadly virus,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said. “These actions and inactions are inexcusable and are literally endangering people’s lives.”
Update: This story was updated with a statement from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Bureau of Prisons.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.