AFGE assails Trump's plan to go back to work

Union asks OPM and OMB to abide by six conditions before telling federal workers to go back to the office

office workers in masks (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com)
 

The federal government's largest union is demanding some concessions in exchange for agreeing to President Donald Trump's new plans to gradually send federal employees back to their places of work.

On April 20, the Offices of Personnel Management and Management and Budget published a joint memo with guidance for federal agencies to begin sending workers back to their offices in line with a plan that the White House Coronavirus Task Force had publicized in an April 16 press briefing.

The plan would allow agencies to compel the healthiest agency workers to begin to work from their usual offices once no more coronavirus cases emerged after a two-week period, among other conditions.

"I must strongly rebuke the administration for publishing a set of guidelines that is both pre-mature and imprudent," AFGE National President Everett Kelley wrote to the acting heads of OMB and OPM. "These guidelines would, if implemented too soon, worsen the crisis, and unnecessarily expose millions of Americans to illness and potentially, to death."

AFGE wants agencies to offer universal testing for the disease and to develop scientific standards for workplace safety. Additionally, AFGE is seeking hand sanitizer, masks, and other personal protective equipment as well as mandatory paid leave or telework policies for employees who show symptoms of COVID-19 and must self-isolate for 14 days as well as compliance with and complying with union collective bargaining agreements.

OPM clarified in an April 22 memo that recent legislation covering relief and response to the coronavirus pandemic does extend an extra two weeks of sick leave covering COVID-19 recovery and quarantine time. There are other aspects of paid leave in recent legislation that do not apply to federal employees.

The Department of Defense announced plans at an April 22 briefing to extend testing to all uniformed personnel on a tiered basis, that factors in certain critical roles and risk factors.

Elected leaders in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia are urging the Trump administration to keep telework policies in place for federal workers, more than a fifth of whom live in the National Capital Region.

"While of course any essential employee should continue to report to work, we know that a continued federal telework policy will help save lives by allowing more of our region's 360,000 federal employees to work from home," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wrote in a letter to acting OPM Director Michael Rigas.

The regional leaders have collaborated on establishing strict telework policies for the employees of their respective jurisdictions and "hope the federal telework posture is reflective of our own local operating statuses," they wrote.

The union said that OMB and OPM should determine whether it was safe to return to an agency office if a commuting area had seen its number of positive cases decline for at least 14 days.

The White House plan for "Opening Up America Again" would allow agencies to implement a "phased reopening" plan for their workforce that would see healthy workers under the age of 65 years of age who did not show symptoms return to the workplace first. They would be required to wear masks.

"This is contradicted by abundant evidence that even healthy workers under the age of 65 are vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19," Kelley wrote. "AFGE rejects the OPM/OMB attempted categorization of the federal workforce in terms of vulnerability."

AFGE has alleged that a lack of safety standards at agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and Bureau of Prisons has exposed their members to the virus. Union leadership and their Congressional allies have also said that agencies have used the pandemic as an opportunity to cast off established collective bargaining agreements in favor of unilaterally implementing unfavorable workplace policies.

"I've been struck by one clear problem during the coronavirus, that [agency] hostility to unions is a real impediment to opening up [lines of] communication with employees," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said April 23.

"I'm asking agencies to put aside your ideological blinders and work with the union representatives. They're a resource you're foolish not to use. A lack of communication puts people at risk."

An OMB spokesperson said that "by acting early and decisively, President Trump has ensured the government remains open and essential services continue to be provided to the American public throughout the coronavirus emergency. Now as conditions warrant across each state, federal agencies will be able to return operations to normal. This administration remains committed to serving the American public. Our federal workers have shown tremendous fortitude in keeping the U.S. strong."

This article was updated April 27 to include a statement from the Office of Management and Budget.

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