A commuter wears a mask on the New York City subway as fears of the novel coronavirus in the United States spread.

A commuter wears a mask on the New York City subway as fears of the novel coronavirus in the United States spread. Mark Lennihan / AP

Federal Employee Union Outlines Plan to Protect Members from Coronavirus

NTEU is unveiling a website with information it receives from agencies.

The National Treasury Employees Union is launching a website on Wednesday to provide its 150,000 members at 33 federal agencies and departments with updates on the novel coronavirus. 

Speaking before about 400 members at the union’s annual legislative conference, NTEU National President Tony Reardon outlined the steps the labor group is taking to protect its members from the coronavirus and how it’s working with the federal agencies to get information on the spread of the disease and precautionary measures. He also thanked members for their service across the government to respond to the disease.

“[Coronavirus] is something that is, trust me, very much on the forefront of what we’re paying attention to right now and we will be getting that information out” to chapters and NTEU employees, Reardon said. “We’re going to continue to push these agencies to do the right thing and to provide information” they have not been entirely “forthcoming” with so far.

Reardon said the union asked every agency with NTEU members for their pandemic plans and a briefing, both of which it will put on its new website. He told reporters the union had a briefing with the Homeland Security Department a few weeks ago and anticipates getting sessions with the Internal Revenue Service and Customs and Border Protection in the coming week.

He noted that CBP and IRS (which are the union’s largest member bases) are of particular concern because of those employees' risk of exposure to the coronavirus. As tax-filing season is underway, IRS employees are handling envelopes and documents from people nationwide. Although much is unknown about the illness, it is believed that it can remain infectious on a surface for up to nine days, U.S News and World Report reported. Meanwhile, CBP officers are screening people at the borders for the disease, so could contract it through human contact. “Understand that we are concerned and we’re concerned for our employees,” he told reporters. 

Reardon said that the coronavirus outbreak is all the more reason the union is pushing to expand telework goals because that would give employees more flexibility to work from home when they’re sick or to avoid being exposed to germs. On Tuesday, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidance on how agencies should expand their telework policies in response to the outbreak. 

However, Reardon said the Trump administration has a “dysfunctional approach” to the policy because “on one hand administration officials repeatedly claim that there’s no directive to stop telework,” but, “on the other hand, federal agencies are cutting back on established telework programs with little concern or regard for the effect on employees.”

In addition to talking about coronavirus preparedness and awareness, Reardon acknowledged that “NTEU members are among those who stepped up” to respond to the outbreak.

“Customs and Border Protection employees were at the airports evaluating travelers arriving from China to see if they were showing any signs of the disease,” he said before members.  “Food and Drug Administration scientists, researchers and medial staff mobilized to study and understand the coronavirus, so effective ways to diagnose the illness and successfully treat it can be quickly developed and so many more” employees are taking part as well. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to “attract the best and the brightest in public service.”