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Federal employees push for COVID-19 protections in 'dangerous' workplaces

Federal employees push for COVID-19 protections in 'dangerous' workplaces
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Thousands of federal employees who have been working remotely for weeks are starting to return to their offices, and they’re raising concerns about what they see as a lack of protections against the coronavirus.

IRS employees are among those who have begun returning to their workplaces as the White House desperately tries to rush aid to millions of Americans and jump-start a cratering economy.

But employee unions and their Democratic allies say the Trump administration hasn’t put in place proper protocols to ensure a safe workplace, nor has it supplied masks and other protective equipment to front-line federal workers like Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers, who have been working at airports throughout the weeks-long coronavirus crisis.

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"It's dangerous. It's dangerous for those federal employees," said former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet MORE, now a Florida Democratic congresswoman who is Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE’s (D-Calif.) pick to serve on a new coronavirus oversight commission.

“Do I think it’s dangerous for them to open? Yes. Do I think that we have the level of cleaning? Boy, I'm not criticizing the cleaners, because they've all been working hard. No, the answer is no. It's too early. It's too early.”

Five TSA workers have died from the coronavirus, as have four IRS employees.

The challenge is most acute at airports, since droplets from an infected person can easily spread through an airplane cabin. TSA officers must directly interact with all travelers during the security screening process, even if those travelers are exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.

“Our TSA employees are required — it’s not a choice, it's mandatory that they interact closely and daily with passengers, thereby increasing the likelihood of being exposed to COVID-19,” Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsDemings on Florida: 'We're excited about what we're seeing' but 'taking absolutely nothing for granted' Why it's time for a majority female Cabinet Sunday shows preview: The final push to Election Day MORE (D-Fla.), who was a police captain at the Orlando airport the day of the 9/11 attacks, said Thursday on a conference call about TSA workers. “They have been there and will be there to protect us. And now, once again, we have an opportunity to protect them.”

The TSA said this week that 500 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

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They're among more than 10,000 federal workers across the country who've contracted the virus, according to a Government Executive report.

It’s figures like those that have prompted Democrats like Rep. Lou CorreaJose (Lou) Luis CorreaCriminalization that never should have been: Cannabis Man arrested, charged with threatening to attack Muslims in Germany Gloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California MORE (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel that oversees transportation issues, Rep. Dina TitusAlice (Dina) Costandina TitusCoordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Safe, responsible casino gaming supports state economies at crucial time MORE (D-Nev.) and Demings to push for the next coronavirus relief package, dubbed CARES 2, to include provisions for TSA workers, including better health care coverage and survivor benefits for family members of officers who die on the job.

But it’s not just the statistics. Some Democratic lawmakers said they were deeply disturbed by what they witnessed at TSA checkpoints when they flew to Washington last week to vote on a coronavirus relief package.

Some recalled seeing officers without protective masks while handling driver's licenses and other ID cards, potentially passing germs from one passenger to the next.

“I was shocked and dismayed,” Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsChamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night If we want change, young people have to do more than protest Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking MORE (D-Minn.) said on a separate phone call Thursday about safety for front-line workers. “The protocols are clearly not as robust as they need to be. As we contemplate reopening and reengaging and reconnecting, we have a duty and responsibility to protect those who are providing safety for us and also to the traveling public.”

Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellGM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards Ex-AG Holder urges GOP to speak against Trump efforts to 'subvert' election results McEnany disputes any Trump 'advocacy' with invite to Michigan lawmakers MORE (D-Mich.) said she questioned some TSA officers who weren’t wearing masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE). In the absence of an agency-wide policy, they told her it was a personal choice.

“We’re living at a very complicated time of individual liberty versus the common good,” said Dingell, a member of Democratic leadership. But, she added, “everybody should have PPE equipment for their place of work.”

A TSA official told The Hill that the agency always requires that its front-line workers wear nitrile disposable gloves when screening, and that passengers may request new gloves be worn when they are screened. TSA also has authorized employees to use eye protection, N95 respirators and surgical masks, though that protective gear remains voluntary at most airports, the official said.

In some high-risk locations, TSA security directors can mandate officers to wear masks.

“TSA remains committed to the health and safety of our workforce,” the agency said in a statement.

But given the gaps in guidance, Democrats are eyeing a host of worker safety protections as they craft the CARES 2 package, which is expected to be released in the House this month.

Led by Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Trump officials approve Georgia plan to remove healthcare.gov as enrollment option House committee subpoenas Education Department staff over for-profit colleges MORE (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Democrats are hoping to require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt new workplace standards for combating airborne infectious diseases like the coronavirus. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for workplace safety, it is nonbinding.

Democrats, in the CARES Act that was signed into law March 27, sought language requiring OSHA to adopt temporary, binding work safety standards, but it was rejected by Senate Republicans and the White House. Scott is now pushing for the same provision in CARES 2, and union leaders are rallying behind him.

Workers need “protection of an OSHA temporary standard for the pandemic,” said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal workers.

That provision is sure to once again meet plenty of resistance from congressional Republicans, many of whom bucked the advice of public health experts last week and refused to wear masks during votes on emergency coronavirus legislation. But the issue is gaining urgency as more states begin to ease their social distancing requirements, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE scrambles to resuscitate the devastated economy.

In a letter to House leaders this week, roughly 150 Democrats called for the CARES 2 bill to include OSHA’s temporary standard, provide hazard pay and expand leave benefits for those unable to work due to risks stemming from underlying health issues.

“As federal workers continue to ensure that critical operations continue during this pandemic, many have already contracted COVID-19, some have died, and thousands more remain at risk for infection,” read the letter spearheaded by Reps. Reps. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Democrats smell blood with new DHS whistleblower complaint New Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries MORE (D-N.J.), Mark PocanMark William PocanCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Wis.) and Salud CarbajalSalud CarbajalGOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus Bustos tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Calif.).

Among the federal employees particularly at risk, the Democrats wrote, are those at TSA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and meat inspectors at the Department of Agriculture.

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Fueling their effort, the District of Columbia on Thursday announced the deaths of 19 more residents to COVID-19 — the largest one-day tally in the nation’s capital since the pandemic began.

Earlier this week, IRS began calling back “mission-critical” workers like those who staff customer-service call centers and open the millions of pieces of mail the agency has received during the pandemic. The agency is playing a crucial role in distributing cash payments to millions of taxpayers — a central provision of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

The IRS is requiring returning workers to cover their faces but said they should bring their own masks or cloth coverings until the agency can secure PPE for all workers. The IRS has informed the Professional Managers Association (PMA), which represents the agency’s 11,000 workers, that it had secured some masks, disinfectant and hand sanitizer for workers.

“Given the supply chain issues and hundreds of locations from which the IRS operates, it will likely take additional time and efforts to ensure every facility is properly stocked with PPE,” said Chad Hooper, PMA president.

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act COVID-19 and the problem of presidential succession MORE (D-Md.) said many of the 65,000 federal workers he represents in his district outside D.C. are scared about returning to work.

“My constituents are terrified of an arbitrary decision to just reopen the federal government on the Fourth of July or on June 1. We want a real science to this process. We want a real formal public analysis of what is safe and what is not,” Raskin said. 

“What we need is a coherent nationwide plan that applies not just to all the states, but to the federal government itself.”

Updated at 12:09 p.m.