Lawmakers also raise concerns the department will bring employees back in unsafe conditions.
As the Homeland Security Department prepares to send furlough notices to thousands of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees, workers in other areas of the department are worried they too could see furloughs after fees collected by their offices have dropped precipitously in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Union officials raised the concerns Tuesday at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel on oversight, management and accountability, pointing specifically to Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations. The hearing focused on how DHS could ensure the safety of its employees as coronavirus continues to spread and federal agencies are bringing more workers back to their normal duty stations.
About 8,000 CBP officers are funded through immigration inspection and other fees collected as various vehicles and vessels pass through ports of entry.
“This budget shortfall is a result of the reduction in customs and immigration user fees collected due to the drastic drop in international commercial travel, and to a lesser extent, trade volume since March 2020,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP’s Office of Field Operations employees.
Reardon called on Congress to appropriate funding to make up for the shortfall, noting CBP has estimated it will use up all of its collected fees and reserves before the end of the fiscal year.
“Without appropriated funding to support these CBP officers in [fiscal] 2020, we are gravely concerned that this loss of user fee funding could result in furloughs at a time when trade and travel will be struggling to return to normal,” Reardon said.
CBP did not respond to a request for comment on its current funding situation or the possibility of furloughs.
Reardon's appeal follows a request by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for $1.2 billion to close a shortfall the agency has said resulted from a drop-off in application receipts during the pandemic. USCIS will soon begin sending furlough notices to thousands of employees to prepare for the possibility it will not receive additional funding, telling its workers the forced unpaid time off could last more than 30 days. As of last week, USCIS had yet to formally ask Congress for the appropriation.
Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USCIS workers, said at the hearing the only thing worse than DHS carrying out a poorly planned return to work would be "no return at all." He implored lawmakers to provide USCIS with emergency funding and require the funding be contingent on not furloughing any workers.
“These furloughs would completely destroy their ability to support themselves and their families and worsen the already precarious economic situation of their communities,” Kelley said in his written testimony.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, the top Republican on the subcommittee, encouraged his colleagues to come up with funding to avoid employee furloughs, noting the coronavirus pandemic is damaging the physical and mental health even of those who do not contract COVID-19.
“Unemployment can lead to both physical and mental health issues,” Crenshaw said. “We must get creative in addressing this shortfall.”
While much of the DHS workforce has continued working normally in the face of the pandemic, some of its operations have shut down. The department is now looking for ways to safely restart operations at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, immigration service centers and enrollment centers for trusted traveler programs. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., the subcommittee’s chairwoman, called on DHS to ensure it could bring its employees back to work without subjecting them to undue risk.
“As DHS resumes these operations, it is important that the department have plans in place to adequately protect the workforce’s health and safety,” Torres Small said, “such as regularly cleaning facilities, adjusting workspaces to align with social distancing guidelines, and providing personal protective equipment.”
Torres Small echoed some of the union officials at the hearing in calling for hazard pay for the federal employees on the frontlines of the government’s coronavirus response.
“The recent pandemic has required considerable and unparalleled sacrifices from these dedicated public servants,” she said, adding she is worried about “what toll this will have on employee retention and already low morale.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the full Homeland Security Committee, said the Trump administration could bring employees back to their offices for political purposes.
“I fear that in his haste to reopen America ahead of doctors’ advice, President Trump will try to force federal workers back to their offices in an attempt to convince Americans it is safe to return to business-as-usual,” Thompson said. “But it is not safe. Pushing federal workers to resume operations without taking measured precautions needlessly puts them at risk.”
Federal employee groups have laid out specific conditions agencies should meet before calling workers back to their duty stations, such as regional declines in cases, access to personal protective equipment and flexibilities for workers at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The union leaders on Tuesday mostly praised agency leadership for maintaining open dialogues throughout the pandemic, but still pushed for more communication.
About 1,600 DHS employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 10 have died from related symptoms.