As the Department of Homeland Security begins enacting plans to reopen offices and bring employees back to work, some employees could face losing their jobs at the agency, due to funding challenges that have resulted resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to federal employee union leaders that testified at a June 16 hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, a decline in user fees for agencies that deal with the flow of people and goods in and out of the country means that the salaries for some employees may not be covered.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Customs and Border Protection are both facing shortfalls in their user fee revenue, which comes from payments that the agencies charge for goods entering and leaving the country and for immigration applications and petitions.

User fees currently account for approximately 40 percent of the CBP Office of Field Operations Budget and a third of the CBP workforce at the ports of entry, according to National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon.

“Without supplemental appropriated funding to support these CBP officers between now and the end of FY 2020, we are gravely concerned that this loss of user fee funding will result in furloughs at a time when this workforce is most needed to facilitate the flow of legitimate travel and trade as the economy recovers,” Reardon said.

USCIS has also threatened to furlough thousands of workers, unless Congress can make up the difference in fees though emergency appropriations.

According to American Federation of Government employees National President Everett Kelley, the classification of those furloughs means that such employees could be kept off the job for an extended period of time.

“Although CIS is characterizing the layoff as furloughs, they are processing their layoff actions in accordance with [reduction in force] procedures. Such procedures require that RIF notices be issued to employees if the furlough may last more than 30 calendar days. By using RIF notices, rather than furlough notices, CIS can extend the layoffs up to one year. The bottom line is that CIS has placed an employee in the status of being furloughed and potentially RIF-ed at the same time,” Kelley said.

But even as other employees are slated to return to the office for work, union leadership expressed concerns that certain safeguards – such as free onsite testing, contact tracing, increased work area cleaning, Plexiglass barriers, sufficient personal protective equipment, social distancing protocols, use of science-based standards for safe return, equal treatment of the workforce for preventive measures, sending home symptomatic employees and working with unions to set parameters – have yet to be met.

“Resuming operations safely must be considered broadly, both in terms of what is safe for the public we serve and what is safe for the DHS employees and workforce. If reopening occurs when new cases and death rates are still increasing, we risk further infection among the brave men and women who are working to keep our country safe,” said Kelley.

Brandon Judd, national president of the National Border Patrol Council, testified that DHS had provided himself and his colleagues with sufficient PPE, but testing capabilities still needed to be improved.

“Border Patrol does not currently have any testing capacity for agents. Instead we must rely on local medical facilities, which, in border communities, are already overstretched,” said Judd.

Reardon also noted that while DHS has worked to provide guidance for reopening measures, leadership should do more to communicate with the workforce about the details and applications of that guidance.

DHS itself features high numbers of employees, such as Border Patrol and Transportation Security Administration agents, whose jobs have to be done in person, rather than remotely, and COVID-19 cases among DHS staff have reached over 1,600.

But according to Judd the DHS response to the pandemic should serve as a model for other agencies to open their offices back up to staff.

“I believe that in office settings, the federal government can also continue to operate and exceed the levels of service that citizens expect and require of the federal government,” Judd said.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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