Fed. Workers Union Demands Hazard Pay For Virus Exposure

By Kevin Stawicki
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Law360 (March 30, 2020, 4:08 PM EDT) -- Federal employees on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are being unlawfully denied pay increases for working under hazardous conditions as the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, according to a proposed class action filed Friday by the American Federation of Government Employees.

Health care providers at veterans hospitals, food safety inspectors and federal prison workers have been exposed to the coronavirus but haven't seen 25% bumps required under the government's pay system, the federal workers union said in its lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims.

Three of the five workers in the lawsuit are from the minimum-security prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, that has seen 19 cases of COVID-19 among inmates and four cases among staff as of Friday. On Saturday, the prison announced its first death related to the virus and locked down all inmates in their cells later that day.

A corrections officer plaintiff says he transported an inmate infected with COVID-19 to the hospital but was not offered protective equipment and was told by his supervisor that he didn't need a mask. A maintenance worker and food service supervisor also say they had similar experiences working with inmates who tested positive for the virus.

Other workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say they also worked in environments where they were exposed to the virus.

"Each day front-line federal employees willingly risk their health and their families' health to provide critical services to the American people," AFGE President Everett Kelley said in a statement. "It is our hope that the government does right by these employees and pays them the hazardous duty pay they've earned."

Workers exposed to "virulent biologicals" that cause disease and can't be completely blocked by protective gear are owed a 25% pay differential under the regulations or an 8% differential if they're exposed to "micro-organisms which involves potential personal injury."

In addition to those named in the complaint, the union said the increased payments being withheld by the government likely affect thousands of other federal workers.

"I also implore Congress to pass legislation to provide hazardous duty pay to all front-line federal employees not already covered by existing laws like our nurses in federal prisons, transportation security officers at airports and health care workers at the VA," Kelley said.

Heidi Burakiewicz of Kalijarvi Chuzi Newman & Fitch PC, who represents the workers, said in a statement that the situation at the federal prisons is particularly dire.

"Federal prisons are already dangerously understaffed, and now they are a petri dish for COVID-19," she said. "Yet, tens of thousands of [Federal] Bureau of Prisons employees are still showing up to do their job every day."

Representatives for the government did not respond to requests for comment.

The workers are represented by Heidi Burakiewicz, Robert DePriest, Michael Robinson and Alexander F. Booker of Kalijarvi Chuzi Newman & Fitch PC and Judith Galat of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Counsel information for the government was not immediately available.

The case is Braswell et al. v. U.S., case number 1:20-cv-00359, in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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