Congress must enact a plan to keep government workers safe
© Aaron Schwartz

As states, schools, businesses, and government agencies rush to reopen in the shadow of COVID-19, the story of my late husband -- a federal employee who was exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace and died from it -- offers a cautionary tale. The risks posed by the virus are real and if strict precautions aren’t taken, many more will die. Our leaders at the federal, state, and local levels need a coordinated approach to ensuring worker safety that is based on science

My husband Chai Suthammanont worked in the kitchen of a Child Development Center (CDC) at Marine Corps Base Quantico. In March 2020, despite the spreading virus, two CDCs at Quantico were combined; all administrative staff, care givers/teachers, kitchen staff, and children of essential personnel were put together in one center. In April, childcare providers and teachers were placed on automatic two-week furloughs to effect social distancing; administrative staff were returned to their original CDC, ostensibly for training.

For reasons still unknown, the CDC kitchen staff remained doubled, even though the number of children were a fraction of normal attendance. When Chai expressed concern about continuing to work in the crowded kitchen, he received conflicting guidance about what was required to be excused from work. In fact, there were at least three different leave policies sent to different employees, but not to Chai, despite his age of 68. Since he had no underlying medical conditions and had not received any of the information, he thought he wasn’t eligible for excused leave.

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On April 22, a co-worker in the kitchen came to work coughing, wearing a mask under her chin. Only after vociferous complaints was the co-worker sent home. On April 27, my husband was notified that he had come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and he was asked to quarantine. Within the week, Chai developed an extremely high fever and tested positive for COVID-19. After several weeks of fighting the virus, including 13 days on a ventilator, he died on May 26. It took just a cough to end our 27 years together.

As I mourn the death of my beloved husband, who leaves behind four adoring sons, grandchildren, his 99-year-old father and a large extended family, my heart aches at the prospect that others will suffer similar fates if adequate protections aren’t put in place to protect them. Recent news reports estimate that more than 39,000 federal employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations can and should take steps to reduce the spread of the virus and protect their employees. Lives are depending on it.

To date, the decision to reopen the federal government has been left to agency leadership. But as early as April, the administration informed federal agencies that “the Federal government is actively planning to ramp back up government operations to the maximum extent possible.” Yet Government Accountability Office (GAO) Managing Director Chris Mihm recently testified before Congress that GAO hadn’t seen a comprehensive reopening plan. He warned that “employees have to have confidence, that, as we reopen, they will be safe in the workplace and they’ll be safe in their interactions with the public.”

Our congressman, Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyJudge issues nationwide injunction against Postal Service changes House panel advances bill to ban Postal Service leaders from holding political positions Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' MORE (D-Va.), has taken up the cause of fighting for federal employee safety. Under the Chaicharn Suthammanont Remembrance Act (H.B. 7340), co-sponsored by Reps. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyPelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power Government watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Top Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence MORE (D-N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonHopes for DC, Puerto Rico statehood rise Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' DeJoy defends Postal Service changes at combative House hearing MORE (D-D.C.), John SarbanesJohn Peter Spyros SarbanesCongress must finish work on popular conservation bill before time runs out Congress must enact a plan to keep government workers safe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Progress slow on coronavirus bill MORE (D-Md.), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinOVERNIGHT ENERGY:  House passes sweeping clean energy bill | Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  | Corporations roll out climate goals amid growing pressure to deliver On The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles over pandemic MORE (D-Md.), Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchOvernight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Official: Pentagon has started 'prudent planning' for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May Overnight Defense: Dems divided on length of stopgap spending measure | Afghan envoy agrees to testify before House panel | Trump leans into foreign policy in campaign's final stretch MORE (D-Mass.), Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers Lawmakers call for expanded AI role in education, business to remain competitive The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (D-Mich.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: House to vote on military justice bill spurred by Vanessa Guillén death | Biden courts veterans after Trump's military controversies House to vote on 'I Am Vanessa Guillén' bill Overnight Defense: Trump's battle with Pentagon poses risks in November | Lawmakers launch Fort Hood probe | Military members can't opt out of tax deferral MORE (D-Calif), and Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point MORE (D-Calif.), federal agencies would be required to publish online a plan to re-open a federal office building at least 30 days prior to the return of federal employees. The plans would be required to include:

  • A description of the personal protective equipment that will be provided by the agency, the additional cleaning protocols to be implemented, and efforts to ensure social distancing;
  • The actions the agency will take to protect workers who must work in locations outside of federal office buildings;
  • The requirements that members of the public must meet in order to enter federal office spaces;
  • A description of the proper contingencies for employees who are at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus; and
  • Continuity of operations plans, including plans to reverse reopening measures if there is a resurgence in coronavirus cases in certain geographic areas.

Clear, consistent, transparent agency policies are needed to ensure workers -- and members of the public in contact with federal agencies, like the Social Security Administration -- are aware of how they are being protected, as well as their own responsibilities to protect others. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress for the federal government to take these commonsense steps and keep their employees safe. I wish they were in place in April when they could have protected Chai. They could now save many others. So do it now, before it’s too late.

Christina Suthammanont lives in Fairfax, Va.