A passenger uses a mobile telephone to take photographs during a car rally staged by many Colorado organizations to show support for essential workers Saturday, May 2, 2020, outside the State Capitol in Denver.

A passenger uses a mobile telephone to take photographs during a car rally staged by many Colorado organizations to show support for essential workers Saturday, May 2, 2020, outside the State Capitol in Denver. David Zalubowski/AP

Protect the Workers Who Protect Us

The pandemic has laid bare the inherent risk federal employees face when duty to serve the public conflicts with the right to health and safety.

Like everything else in society, the coronavirus pandemic will reshape the federal workforce in ways we could never have imagined just a few weeks ago.

Agency leadership and employee organizations like the National Treasury Employees Union continue to navigate the complexities of how to keep government running without endangering the people who work there.

The process has been far from perfect. We’ve been especially critical of agencies that hesitated or took only incremental steps toward policies that would have allowed more employees to work from the safety of their own homes starting much sooner.

But in the 33 agencies where NTEU represents frontline employees, the vast majority of employees never missed a beat. They remain on the job—either at home or in a building that has fewer people in it than normal—and personal interactions with coworkers or the public are either limited or suspended.

There are some exceptions. Customs and Border Protection employees are still at the ports inspecting cargo and screening international travelers. And IRS employees are returning to open millions of pieces of mail and process tax returns. Protecting them is an evolving, never-ending priority. Public employees at all levels of government continue to serve this country just as ably as in previous national emergencies.

The global health crisis has laid bare for Americans the inherent risk that federal employees face when their duty to serve the public conflicts with their basic human right to health and safety.

Finding that balance requires a set of workplace policies that give employees the flexibility to adapt to a dramatically altered work environment; a strong voice in how to best deliver for the American people when lives are disrupted; protection from retaliation if they speak out about health and safety concerns at work; and the tools they need to get the job done, no matter where or when their shift starts.

A federal workforce with these policies already in place well before the coronavirus threat is more nimble, productive and efficient, which is why NTEU pursues all of these things, and more, when we bargain our contracts.  

And just in case there are those who believe a pandemic somehow opens a window to circumvent civil service laws or weaken collective bargaining, NTEU will be there to prove them wrong. 

Federal employees around the country are getting sick and dying often because of exposure at their workplaces. It is a tragedy that will forever alter the federal workforce and what it means to be a dedicated public servant.

During this Public Service Recognition Week, remember that what federal employees need now is what they’ve always needed: safety, respect, resources and our gratitude.

Tony Reardon is national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents employees in 33 different federal agencies and departments.

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