Trump’s coronavirus response leaves federal workers, unions, confused and upset
AFGE is demanding protective equipment for screeners at airports who are being forced to work without such equipment, causing many to panic and not want to come into work. | Michael Dwyer/AP

WASHINGTON –  Donald Trump’s dizzying reversals and commands to the country about what to do to combat the coronavirus pandemic leave one of the biggest groups of U.S. workers – the 2.1 million federal government employees – and their unions confused and upset.

And guidance, or lack of it, from individual agencies doesn’t help either.

Trump is telling feds to telework if they can, but his order applies across-the-board only to workers in the Washington metropolitan area, so far. And, contrary to popular impression, D.C.-area workers are only 15% of the federal workforce.

The rest are stationed everywhere from Anchorage to San Diego to San Juan to Portland, Maine, to El Paso to Rouses Point, N.Y. That’s a Customs and Border Patrol Station on the New York-Canada border. The next city north of it? Montreal.

Some individual agencies are telling workers outside the D.C. area to telework, too. They include unionized federal immigration and asylum judges, and the Manhattan, Chicago and Detroit regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board, where all the workers are being tested for coronavirus. Social Security’s local offices are also closed. One catch:

The Securities and Exchange Commission emptied out one floor of its building last week and told the workers there to telecommute after one on that floor tested positive for the coronavirus and was self-quarantined.

But SEC’s headquarters has nine floors. The union for those workers, the Treasury Employees (NTEU), says SEC, the IRS and other agencies whose workers it represents should follow the government’s own coronavirus guidelines and send everybody home to telework.

“This is a chance for the government to lead by strictly following the advice of its own public health officials,” said NTEU President Tony Reardon. “State and local officials and private companies are all ramping down, and the federal government — where possible — should do the same.” He suggested closing all federal buildings with at least 50 workers.

Still other agencies are forcing groups of workers who must stay on the job to toil without adequate protection. One is the nation’s 45,000 airport screeners, who have also had to struggle with administering tests to long lines of travelers.

Another is nurses at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, according to Government Employees (AFGE) President Everett Kelley, whose union represents both groups and a total of 700,000 federal workers.

The telework command for the D.C. area “still doesn’t go far enough to protect federal workers and the public,” Kelley said.

“From the very beginning of this emerging health crisis, our union has been calling on the administration to immediately allow all federal employees to telework if they are able. Yet OMB’s guidance fails to address the 85% of federal workers who live and work outside the nation’s capital.

“The administration needs to take more direct action to protect federal employees and the public they serve by immediately ordering all federal employees nationwide to telework if the work they do can be accomplished at home. This also means ensuring that employees have the equipment they need to do their work remotely.

“We also need to be doing more to protect the workers who are reporting to duty every day at our nation’s airports, VA and military hospitals, federal prisons, and elsewhere. The jobs they do require their physical presence at the worksite, and they must be provided with the safety equipment and other resources needed to ensure their safety.”

The situation is particularly dangerous at the VA hospitals, National Nurses United Vice President Irma Westmoreland, who heads the union’s VA nurses sector.

She said the hospitals don’t have enough equipment and supplies to handle a flood of veterans who could catch the coronavirus. They’re also short-staffed, an issue VA worker unions – including NNU and AFGE – complained about even before Trump entered the White House. The VA hospitals, the nation’s largest health care system, have 45,000-49,000 vacancies.

Westmoreland said the VA not only is not protecting its workers, it’s not even listening to them. She called for personal protective gear “to cover employees’ entire heads, necks and bodies even if it’s more expensive and will require more education” on proper use.

“If our nurses and health care workers are not protected, that means our veteran patients, their families, and our wider community is not protected,” Westmoreland said.

The VA reports that, so far, five patients tested positive for the coronavirus, another has died and 25 more are suspected to be positive. Because of their injuries and often, lung ailments contracted on the battlefield, the VA’s patients are susceptible to the virus.

Nationally,  more than 6,000  people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and more than 100 have died. There are 1,000 cases in New York City alone.

“Many employees must still report to work each day, either due to the nature of the work or because they are directly involved in coronavirus response efforts, and they too have expressed concern they are not receiving the proper equipment and guidance to keep them safe. Employees at the Transportation Security Administration, National Institutes of Health, Defense Department and the Postal Service have contracted the virus,” NTEU reported.

The airport screeners, officially known as Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), want the best protection on their jobs processing passengers: The N95 respirator masks. On March 10, Kelley e-mailed the TSA chief demanding the masks.

That afternoon, three TSOs at San Francisco International Airport tested positive for the coronavirus and self-quarantined. So did another 40 TSOs at San Jose who had come in contact with the three.

AFGE had actually first demanded strong protective measures from TSA on Jan. 29, but never heard back, Kelley said.

It did on the afternoon of March 10, Trump’s TSA chief, David Pekoske, rejected Kelley’s demand, offering surgical masks instead. Those masks, the Food and Drug Administration says, do not protect wearers from “small particles from coughs and sneezes” that spread the coronavirus.

“Despite our union’s numerous requests for adequate masks and protective equipment, TSA has failed to properly equip our officers with the resources they need to prevent infection,” of both TSOs and the airport crowds they handle, Kelley added.

“Our officers screen more than two million passengers across the country every day,” added TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas. “It’s clear not enough is being done to protect TSOs from this virus. There is a shortage of cleaning supplies, masks, and protective gloves at many airports. We do everything we can to protect passengers, but who is protecting us?”

Then there are the Defense Department’s civilian commissary workers, also among the lower-paid feds. DOD is doing little for them, Kelley says. He doesn’t want DOD to send them home, too – yet. Instead, wants “reduced or staggered hours” at commissaries so they can be properly cleaned, “adequate protective equipment to all employees who have direct contact with the public,” and paid leave for all quarantined and self-quarantined workers, plus a labor-management task force to ensure actions and decisions are made quickly and cooperatively.

“We understand these are extraordinary requests, but the coronavirus pandemic is an extraordinary event,” Kelley explained. The workers want to continue to serve veterans, the military, the National Guard and their families “yet we want the agency to provide the utmost protection to its workforce as it carries out the agency’s mission.”

NTEU’s Reardon said government must do more than provide masks and respirators to workers. He cited the federal Centers for Disease Control’s own recommendations to the entire country, opposing gatherings of 50+ people as a reason to shut entire buildings.

“The half-measures so far are not enough because too many government workers are still working in full or nearly full offices,” Reardon said. “Closing buildings halts the large gatherings, as CDC recommends, allows telework to continue and provides weather and safety leave — as opposed to personal leave — for those who have jobs that are not eligible for telework.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.