AFGE sued the federal government for hazardous duty pay and environmental differential pay for AFGE members and federal employees who have been or are being exposed to the coronavirus while performing their official duties.
The suit names five plaintiffs working at the Bureau of Prisons, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Veteran Affairs. But there are likely thousands of other federal employees who have been exposed to the coronavirus while performing their official duties and are entitled to hazard pay pursuant to federal law.
Plaintiffs working under the General Schedule (GS) are entitled to a 25% hazard pay differential under Title 5 because they were exposed to hazardous working conditions through the performance of their assigned duties and the hazardous duty had not been taken into account in the classification of their positions. A “virulent biological” like the coronavirus clearly qualifies as a hazard under Title 5. Similarly, Wage Grade (WG) plaintiffs are entitled to a 4% or 8% environmental pay increase, depending on available protective equipment, for exposure to micro-organisms.
“Each day front-line federal employees willingly risk their health and their families’ health to provide critical services to the American people. It is our hope that the government does right by these employees and pays them the hazardous duty pay they’ve earned,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “I also implore Congress to pass legislation to provide hazardous duty pay to all front-line federal employees not already covered by existing laws like our nurses in federal prisons, and health care workers at the VA who provide direct patient care to our nation’s veterans.”
Three of the plaintiffs in the case work at the Federal Correctional Complex Oakdale in Louisiana. One of the plaintiffs is a correctional officer. On March 26, he was told to take an inmate to the hospital. When he asked his supervisor if he needed a mask, he was told no. He travelled in a van with the inmate and sat in a hospital room with the inmate with no protective gear whatsoever despite their close proximity to each other.The inmate tested positive and died from COVID-19.
“Federal employees are risking their lives and the lives of their families every day when they leave their homes,” said Heidi Burakiewicz of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, the lead attorney on the suit. “As just one example, federal prisons are already dangerously understaffed, and now they are a petri dish for COVID-19. Yet, tens of thousands of Bureau of Prisons employees are still showing up to do their job every day.”
“Department of Veterans Affairs employees, including janitorial and maintenance staff, have also been working for weeks in facilities where there have been documented cases of COVID-19,” she added. “All of these men and women, and many others working in jobs across the federal government, have met the legal standards outlined in Title 5 and the government needs to give them hazardous duty pay or environmental differential pay.”
As of April 2, the federal prison complex at Oakdale alone had five inmate deaths, 20 staff who had tested positive for the virus, and a large number of inmates who were either in quarantine or experiencing symptoms.
The institution did not lockdown the inmates in their cells until the night of March 21. That means that the almost 1,000 inmates at FCI 1 Oakdale had been going to their work assignments and going to the dining hall for their meals despite COVID19 running rampant in the institution.