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As negotiations resume about how the federal government should continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers and labor groups have renewed efforts to include additional benefits and protections for federal employees both as part of the next phase of relief legislation and in annual must-pass bills.
Before the House voted on Tuesday to pass its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers voted to amend the bill to include legislation from Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., to ensure that federal employees who had to cancel leave because of COVID-19 can retain their leave balance, regardless of so-called “use it or lose it” rules.
The Federal Frontline Worker Leave Protection Act was first introduced in May and clarifies that the pandemic constitutes an “exigency of the public business,” an exception in federal leave law that allows for employees to carry over more than 30 days of leave per year in certain situations.
“The service of an employee responding to the COVID-19 pandemic shall be deemed to be an exigency of the public business, and any leave that, by reason of such service, is lost by the employee by operation of this section (regardless of whether such leave was scheduled) shall be restored to the employee and credited and available,” the bill states.
In June, the Office of Personnel Management announced that it would issue regulations deeming pandemic response to be an “exigency of the public business,” although officials said the new rules would only apply if a federal employee was forced to cancel scheduled leave because of work-related requirements related to COVID-19. OPM’s planned regulations are still forthcoming.
Conversely, Wexton’s amendment “shall apply to any leave lost on or after the date” of the Defense authorization measure's enactment.
Meanwhile, as congressional leadership restarts talks over a so-called phase four of coronavirus response legislation, the National Treasury Employees Union has renewed its calls for federal worker protections as part of any new bill. In a letter Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, NTEU National President Tony Reardon said new legislation should require agencies to do more to keep employees safe, especially as they consider reopening federal facilities.
“This global pandemic underscores the value of strong telework programs in providing continuity of operations while slowing community spread,” Reardon wrote. “However, employees who are required to report to their worksites and interact with the public are at greater risk of exposure to the virus, such as [Customs and Border Protection] personnel at the ports of entry. Unfortunately, many agencies are failing to ensure increased worksite cleaning and provide adequate personal protective equipment in addition to denying hazardous duty pay and are forcing employees into situations where they have to seek alternative child and dependent care.”
Reardon called for hazard pay for federal workers whose duties require “regular or routine” contact with the public or colleagues of $13 per hour up to a maximum of $10,000 for employees whose basic pay is less than $200,000 per year, as well as a guarantee of continued telework for the remainder of the pandemic. He also advocated for inclusion of measures to allow federal first responders to stay on their current retirement plans, even if they cannot meet the physical requirements of their position due to exposure to the coronavirus, along with other provisions included in the House-passed HEROES Act.
NTEU called for language ensuring weather and safety leave is more readily available to federal workers throughout the pandemic.
“Legislation is also needed to ensure weather and safety leave to all employees who are not able to perform their duties remotely and who cannot travel to their duty station because of health and safety risks as a result of the coronavirus and to authorize the use of weather and safety leave to cover child care and other dependent care responsibilities arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reardon wrote.
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