The U.S. Navy's Expeditionary Medical Facility prepares to deploy from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, to New Orleans in support of the Pentagon's COVID-19 response.

The U.S. Navy's Expeditionary Medical Facility prepares to deploy from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, to New Orleans in support of the Pentagon's COVID-19 response. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin Bowser/Navy

Defense Employees Report Poor Coronavirus Response at Two Facilities

Union officials said a naval base in Naples, Italy, has resisted calls to suspend nonessential services, while an OSHA complaint contends a Virginia facility failed to respond to an employee’s positive COVID-19 test.

Civilian employees at two Defense Department facilities report that their leadership has failed to act sufficiently to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, potentially putting employees and service members at risk for infection.

Naval Support Activity Naples, home to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, is located in Italy, one of the nations hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. But employees say base leaders have resisted calls to suspend non-essential services to slow the virus’ spread, effectively defying a country-wide lockdown.

Peter Winch, special assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees District 14, described the base’s response as “business as usual.” Navy Exchange, a military retailer that sells a mix of groceries, clothing and other household goods, remains fully open while offering a $2-per-hour pay increase to employees during the outbreak, while the office of Morale, Welfare and Recreation, which operates restaurants and entertainment activities, including a movie theater, bowling alley and the like, continues to operate normally.

“They’ve tried to keep everything open, even though the Italian government has requested things like cafeterias and entertainment places be shut down,” Winch said “But that’s not how they’re doing it—they’re keeping it open for sailors’ amusement while they’re in port. And so there’s a conflict, because we have union members who live [off-base] in the country and some have already tested positive.”

In a statement, AFGE National President Everett Kelley called the decision to keep these facilities fully operational “unacceptable and irresponsible.”

“The Navy must close all non-mission-critical facilities immediately in order to protect employees, their families, and communities,” Kelley said. “Most of these employees are fully integrated into Italian society, with spouses and children who are Italian citizens, some of whom have been experiencing flu-like symptoms and are currently quarantined. Workers shouldn’t have to choose between a paycheck and protecting themselves and their families from this virus.”

Stateside, employees at a base just outside of Washington, D.C., filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint, alleging that a medical center failed to respond to an employee’s positive coronavirus diagnosis. OSHA informed the Andrew Rader U.S. Army Health Clinic at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia that it would not perform a full investigation, but asked the base to conduct an internal investigation and report the findings back to the agency.

“In mid-March, an employee in the [clinic] came into work with a fever and respiratory symptoms,” the complaint stated. “The sick employee was tested and confirmed to be positive for COVID-19. It is alleged that the employer never informed the employees who worked within the same area as the COVID-19 positive individual of the exposure, the exposed employees were not quarantined, the area was not sanitized, and there were no additional controls implemented to reduce the risk of viral exposure.”

If the base does not respond and submit its findings, with documentation, by April 8, OSHA will conduct an investigation of the workplace. The agency also asked base leadership to post a copy of the allegations in a “readily accessible” location for employees.

The Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment.