Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., is one of the lawmakers gathering signatures for the letter.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., is one of the lawmakers gathering signatures for the letter. Evan Vucci / AP file photo

Democratic Lawmakers Want Hazard Pay, Union Protections in Next COVID-19 Relief Bill

Letter to House leadership supports extra compensation, weather and safety leave, and other rights and benefits for frontline federal workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

House Democrats will push for a number of additional protections for federal workers in future legislation aimed at combating the coronavirus pandemic, including hazard pay, expanded leave and telework, and reversing the Trump administration’s policies toward federal employee unions.

Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.; Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; and Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., are gathering signatures for a letter that will be sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy urging a number of provisions impacting federal employees to be included in the next round of coronavirus response legislation.

“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,” the lawmakers wrote. “This is why it is critical that any new legislation to respond to this pandemic include provisions to protect and support federal workers.”

Top among the proposals is mandating the federal government provide hazardous duty pay and environmental differential pay to federal workers who are required to continue to report to work, rather than telework or take weather and safety leave. OPM has said that agencies have the authority to provide hazard pay to employees who continue to commute to work, but thus far few, if any, agencies have done so.

Additionally, the lawmakers urged leadership to include provisions continuing to expand telework and guaranteeing weather and safety leave to federal workers who cannot report to work because of “health and safety risks.” Currently, some agencies have ordered employees to continue to commute to work because of a lack of capacity to include them in telework initiatives or because jobs have been considered nonportable because they are still done on paper.

“We also request that further legislation include language expanding telework to all federal employees who can still perform their duties remotely to minimize the spread of COVID-19,” they wrote. “However, if employees are not able to perform their duties remotely and they are not required to report to work they should be placed on weather and safety leave.”

The proposal also would open up the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program for an enrollment period, so that employees could change their coverage or purchase FEHBP health insurance during the pandemic.

“For complex reasons, including the fact that the employee-share of FEHBP premiums for career part-time federal employees is much higher than for full-time employees, many career part-time federal employees are not enrolled in FEHBP,” the lawmakers wrote. “In the face of this pandemic, contracting COVID-19 ought to be considered as a ‘qualifying life event,’ giving federal employees who are not currently enrolled in a FEHBP health plan the opportunity to purchase health care coverage.”

Watson Coleman, Pocan and Carbajal said that given the need for cooperation among the federal workforce to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19, the next package of legislation should include provisions reversing the Trump administration’s policies aimed at sidelining federal employee unions, particularly the three controversial executive orders making it easier to fire federal workers, setting time limits for collective bargaining negotiations and severely curtailing the use of official time.

“In the face of this pandemic, it is important to restore labor-management relations and communication as agencies work to quickly implement new policies and workplace procedures,” they wrote. “The unique role labor representatives play means it is critical that they have the opportunity to communicate regularly with management to discuss the needs and concerns of employees as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The lawmakers also proposed adding a recently passed House measure that would grant full Title 5 rights to Transportation Security Administration employees to the next bill.