Obama Praises Feds Fighting Ebola in West Africa, But Union Says They’re Not Protected

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

President Obama on Wednesday praised federal employees returning from West Africa who helped fight the Ebola outbreak in the region, saying at a White House ceremony he was proud of their efforts.

Following the ceremony, however, a union representing federal workers called for better protections for civilian employees deployed to Ebola-ridden countries, including quarantines upon their return. The American Federation of Government Employees asked the Defense Department to issue guidance specific to civilians fighting the outbreak.

Non-Defense civilians and health care workers flanked Obama during the speech, as the president thanked them for their service. Obama also highlighted several federal employees still in the field, including Katie Curran, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee who led a “disease detective team” to a village in Sierra Leone so remote it was only reachable via canoe. Curran is currently on her way back to the United States.

He noted Capt. Calvin Edwards, who works for the Food and Drug Administration in Harrisburg, Pa., and was sent to Monrovia, Liberia, where he is currently leading a team of Public Health Service officers. Dan Chertow, who was at the White House, took a leave of absence from his position at the National Institutes of Health to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders in Liberia.

“I know that with all the headlines and all the news, that people are scared,” Obama said. “I know that Ebola has concerned them. But the reason I’m so proud of this country is because when there are times where we need to step up and do the right thing, we do the right thing. That’s who we are. That’s what we do.”

He added: “No other nation is doing as much to help in West Africa as the United States of America.”

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AFGE, however, focused on what is being done for federal employees involved in efforts to contain the disease. J. David Cox, the union’s national president, noted new protocols require military members returning from West Africa to undergo a 21-day “controlled monitoring regimen,” but the protocols do not apply to civilians.

He also lamented that service members participating in Operation United Assistance are receiving bonus pay for their efforts, but Defense has not authorized hazard pay for civilians. Federal employees deployed to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea would earn an extra 35 percent of their basic pay only after serving in the region for 42 days. While that hardship differential is a governmentwide figure determined by the State department -- and is the largest such bonus allowable under federal law -- additional hazard pay can be awarded at the discretion of an employee’s agency.

“DoD is treating civilian employees as second-class citizens when it comes to protecting their health and compensating them for working in extreme environments,” Cox said. “If it’s the right thing to go the extra mile to protect the health and safety of the American public when it comes to returning troops, then it is also the right thing for the civilians who are working right beside them.”

He added civilian employees in West Africa “work side by side” with the military, and should be subject to the same protections. He called for civilians to receive 21 days of administrative leave while in either self-isolation and monitoring or quarantine upon their return from the region. 

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