A visibly sick co-worker and insufficient safety protocols created unnecessary risk at a Virginia facility.
As the country contemplates the implications of the news that President Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and dozens of others in the president’s orbit have tested positive for coronavirus after having been in contact with one another, it is safe to say that the conditions that contributed to this outbreak are not unique.
Other than daily testing, the White House follows no formal coronavirus safety protocols. Neither does any other federal workplace, because there are no federal requirements that such policies be systematically developed and publicized.
Each legislator’s office, executive agency, and federal facility has different, if any, protocols for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Some offices mandate masking, others ban it; some provide personal protective equipment, others provide none; some encourage federal workers to work remotely, others leave it to workers to decide whether to work remotely or from offices.
I know all too well the consequences of this inconsistent approach: My husband, Chai Suthammanont, contracted COVID-19 in a federal workplace that provided no PPE, had no consistent policy for preventing spread of the virus, and no means of enforcing the ostensible protections that were in place. Federal workers, both in Washington and in offices and facilities across the country, need transparent, consistent, and enforceable workplace safety protocols and information that will help protect them and the public they serve from the coronavirus.
My husband worked in the kitchen of a Child Development Center at Marine Corps Base Quantico. On April 22, a co-worker in the kitchen came to work coughing, wearing a mask under her chin. Only after vociferous complaints was the co-worker sent home. On April 27, Chai was notified after work hours that he had come into direct contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and he was asked to quarantine. Within the week, Chai developed an extremely high fever and tested positive for COVID-19. By May 5, he was in the hospital and after several weeks of fighting the virus, including 13 days on a ventilator, he died on May 26.
At each step, the Child Development Center leadership made decisions with no external oversight. Such oversight might have revealed that personnel decisions hindered social distancing, the lack of a masking mandate rendered people vulnerable to exposure, inconsistent leave policies sowed confusion, and the hazard pay policy perversely incentivized people to hide symptoms. The co-worker who infected Chai either did not honestly disclose her symptoms or, if she did, there was no policy to deny infected personnel access to the facility.
I still mourn the death of my beloved Chai; he was my everything. I am also increasingly angry and frustrated that others continue to be put at risk unnecessarily. As individuals, we all can adhere to basic CDC guidelines, but federal agencies must take a coordinated and responsible approach to informing their workers of workplace safety protocols and protective measures the agency will implement to protect workers. Clear and transparent communication is needed so that every worker — and every person entering a federal workplace — knows the extent to which they are protected, or not. Yet, as we have witnessed with the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House and in the halls of Congress, there are no clear, consistent workplace safety policies and contingency plans for outbreaks.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., upon hearing about Chai’s workplace conditions, introduced the Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act (H.R. 7340), which would require federal agencies to publish online their plans to reopen federal office buildings at least 30 days prior to the return of federal employees. This common-sense legislation passed the House on September 30, and Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced a Senate companion bill (S. 4766). Under the bill, federal agencies’ plans would be required to include:
- A description of the personal protective equipment to be provided by the agency, the additional cleaning protocols to be implemented, and efforts to ensure social distancing;
- The actions the agency will take to protect workers who must work in locations outside of federal office buildings;
- The requirements that members of the public must meet in order to enter federal office spaces;
- A description of the proper contingencies for employees who are at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus; and
- Continuity of operations plans, including plans to reverse reopening measures if there is a resurgence in coronavirus cases in certain geographic areas.
The Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act would establish a national strategy to provide nearly two million full-time federal employees across the country with the clear, consistent, and transparent policies they need to safely return to the workplace. This is not merely another layer of paperwork; it would provide a badly needed roadmap that each federal agency can use to protect its workers’ lives.
This legislation comes too late for Chai — clear, consistent, enforceable, and transparent safety policies were not available at his workplace and he paid the price for that with his life. Isn’t it well past time for the federal government to take steps to adequately protect its workers? I urge Congress and the White House to act swiftly to pass and enact this legislation and save another family from grieving such a terrible loss.
Christina Suthammanont is a Senior Associate with Grant Thornton Public Sector and a resident of Fairfax, Virginia.