Union warns of coronavirus exposure in federal prisons, VA facilities

AFGE sign 

According to the American Federation of Government Employees, federal prisons are putting employees and inmates at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 by not taking required precautions.

The Councils of Prison Labor C-33, a prison labor union within the American Federation of Government Employees, alleged in a March 31 complaint Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that the Bureau of Prisons was in violation of a federal law that ensures employees are free from "recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

The union alleged that BOP officials flouted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on self-quarantine for individuals with COVID-19 symptoms by ordering staff to report to work within two days even if they had recently been tested for coronavirus or had been in contact with inmates who showed symptoms of the virus.

In addition, BOP continued to "authorize movement" and direct workers to bus or airlift inmates to prisons across the U.S. regardless of whether those inmates had been in contact with other inmates who showed symptoms or showed signs of infection themselves.

"The Bureau of Prisons has failed to introduce workplace controls to mitigate or prevent exposure or further exposure to the virus," Council President Shane Fausey wrote.

In the complaint, Fausey also said that the agency did not provide protective gear such as N95 respirator masks to workers tasked with transporting inmates who tested positive for coronavirus. The complaint lists 100 specific facilities where the union says alleged health and safety hazards abound.

According to the BOP, eight inmates have died from coronavirus, while 195 have tested positive, while 63 staff have tested positive.

The same day, AFGE's National Veterans Affairs Council filed a complaint with OSHA against the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In her claim, NVAC President Alma Lee said that the VA had also violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 in failing to provide a safe workplace environment by directing its employees, including those at high risk for transmission, to ignore the 14-day quarantine guidelines and report to work despite being in contact with potentially infected or confirmed positive patients.

Lee said the VA had "[had] not supplied all federal employees with the PPE they desperately need to protect themselves, their peers, and patients from COVID-19 exposure" such as facemasks, N95 respirator masks, gloves, and surgical gowns.

The NVAC President also alleged that the VA had failed to properly isolate confirmed patients and those suspected to have contracted coronavirus, creating an unsafe workplace environment, and had refused to provide testing to VA employees who had come into contact with suspected or positive coronavirus patients.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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