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 ConnollyTrump's assault on the federal government isn't over LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to impeach Trump after Capitol insurrection Trump era bows out with scorched-earth drama in divided GOP 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 MaloneyDemocrats urge tech giants to change algorithms that facilitate spread of extremist content Hillicon Valley: Biden names acting chairs to lead FCC, FTC | Facebook to extend Trump ban pending review | Judge denies request for Amazon to immediately restore Parler Judge denies request for Amazon to immediately restore Parler MORE (D-N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonThis week: Democrats barrel toward Trump impeachment after Capitol attack Boston removes statue of slave kneeling before Lincoln Pelosi, McConnell receive COVID-19 vaccine MORE (D-D.C.), John SarbanesJohn Peter Spyros SarbanesEfforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress Former Md. senator Paul Sarbanes dies at 87 Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Md.), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinInauguration parties lose the glitz and glamour in 2021 This week: Tensions running high in Trump's final days Democratic lawmaker says 'assassination party' hunted for Pelosi during riot MORE (D-Md.), Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchCOVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Top general negative for coronavirus, Pentagon chief to get tested after Trump result l Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds 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 SpeierGlobal Gag Rule is just the tip of the iceberg: Why Repealing the Helms Amendment matters Democrats press to bar lawmakers from carrying guns in the Capitol The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress moves to avert shutdown as virus talks stall again MORE (D-Calif), and Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis House impeaches Trump for second time — with some GOP support Stacey Abrams gets kudos for work in Georgia runoff election 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.