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10,000 Federal Employees Sick with COVID-19

VA employees are told they will be declared AWOL if they try to self isolate after being exposed

Brian Young's picture
Apr 29, 2020

A grim number has been reached with over 10,000 federal employees testing positive for COVID-19. The stunning number means that in just the last month the rate of infection has quadrupled within the federal workforce. The announcement also comes as Trump is attempting to recall many of the federal employees who are working from home, potentially putting tens of thousands more at risk.

While many federal employees are able to work from home, there are a lot of public-facing departments that require people to interact with the public. Many of these departments are the ones that have seen high rates of infection. Here are the infection numbers within the different departments, as complied by GovExec:

  • Defense Department: As of Tuesday afternoon, the Pentagon had confirmed 1,091 cases among civilian workers. An additional 4,265 military personnel tested positive, as well as 427 contractors.
  • Veterans Affairs Department: VA has confirmed 1,633 cases among its Veterans Health Administration employees. VA employees have expressed significant concern about the lack of personal protective equipment, policies that threaten discipline or loss of pay if they do not come in after exposure and poor communication from management. Twenty VA employees have died from symptoms related to the virus.
  • U.S. Postal Service: USPS has confirmed 1,606 employees tested positive for the virus in its workforce of 630,000. The Postal Service has sought to make gloves and masks available in all of its work stations after employees for weeks said basic items were not available. Cases among postal workers jumped by 33% in the last week.
  • State Department: State has confirmed 436 cases in its workforce, most of which are currently active. More than 2,800 employees are self-isolating due to possible exposure. Five State Department employees have died from symptoms related to the virus.
  • Transportation Security Administration: TSA has seen 495 employees test positive for COVID-19. All told, about 1,000 Homeland Security Department workers have tested positive, according to a Buzzfeed report. At least 17 Federal Emergency Management Agency workers have contracted the virus.
  • Agriculture Department: At USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, at least 100 employees have tested positive. The agency is struggling to keep employees safe as hotspots have developed at meat processing plants around the country.
  • Internal Revenue Service: 100 IRS employees have contracted the coronavirus.
  • Health and Human Services Department: HHS has spearheaded and coordinated much of the federal response, and so far 74 employees have tested positive for the virus.
  • Interior Department: At least 10 National Park Service employees have tested positive. NPS made all parks free during the pandemic, though a growing number have since closed. Interior also declined to provide updated figures across its bureaus.

Employees at the VA have been especially upset with the treatment they received. According to GovExec, administrative staff at the hospitals were told not to wear masks at work because there were not enough to go around. This forced staff, who are working at hospitals treating COVID positive patients to put their health on the line daily. At other hospitals, staff members were exposed to COVID-19 positive patients and were told to keep working with them even if the healthcare worker began to show symptoms of COVID-19. Many other hospitals around the country allowed healthcare workers who may have been infected to self-quarantine while awaiting test results. Even if staff wanted to use their own vacation time to self-isolate, they were unable to because they would be marked “absent without leave.” This status would cut off paychecks and negatively impact future pay, promotions, and performance metrics. Employees equated it to being declared AWOL. VA staff also said that the N95 masks, which have been deemed the safest to use, are almost non-existent within the VA and most workers are required to wear disposable masks for hours and days on end.

With 10,000 federal workers already sick an increase in the number may occur next week. That is because the IRS is bringing back 10,000 workers on Monday to begin preparing for tax filing season. In a staff-wide email, workers were warned that “Each IRS facility may not be able to initially procure the PPE for all employees immediately. Employees are therefore required to bring personal face coverings for their nose and mouth area when they come to work.”

The 10,000 workers will be spread out over 10 offices. This is concerning since it means, on average, each office will have 1,000 people in it, making it hard to practice social distancing. “NTEU believes they should remain on telework until all state and local stay-at-home orders are lifted and health and safety precautions have been met,” said National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) President Tony Reardon. The union says that they are working with the IRS to ensure the agency adheres to regular cleaning schedules and allows the employees to practice social distancing. They are also pushing the agency to quickly provide the needed PPE to ensure the safety of the workforce.

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