Five federal employees, assisted by the American Federation of Government Employees labor union, have filed a proposed class action lawsuit in which they claim thousands of federal workers have risked exposure to the novel coronavirus without receiving proper hazard pay.
Under the Code of Federal Regulations, the lawsuit says, agencies are required to remit a 25-percent hazardous duty pay differential to workers who work in close proximity to “virulent biologicals,” defined as “materials of micro-organic nature which when introduced into the body are likely to cause serious disease or fatality and for which protective devices do not afford complete protection.” The code also outlines less severe situations in which workers are to be granted eight-percent or four-percent environmental differential pay for exposure to hazardous microorganisms, according to the suit.
Stressing the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, the plaintiffs argue that they and other federal workers have, as part of their job duties, been forced to work in close contact with objects, surfaces, and individuals who may be infected with coronavirus. According to the case, the virus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified as a “quarantinable communicable disease,” can be spread “by touching infected objects or surfaces and by breathing in areas where an infected person has coughed or exhaled.”
Despite this “unusual physical hardship or hazard,” federal workers have been provided with neither protective gear nor a 25-percent hazard pay differential, the lawsuit alleges.
One plaintiff, a food inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says she monitored the work of another food safety employee who was later found to be infected with coronavirus. Another plaintiff, a diagnostic radiology technologist, claims he performed a procedure on a patient in the Portland Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, using only gloves as protective equipment, without being informed that the individual was infected with COVID-19. The other three plaintiffs, according to the suit, work at a minimum-security prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, where they say inmates and staff have tested positive for the disease. A corrections officer at the prison says he was assigned to transport an infected inmate to the hospital, where he was only given protective equipment after spending “a significant amount of time” with the individual.
The case, which was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, looks to represent a proposed class of federal employees who, since January 27, 2020, have worked “in close proximity to objects, surfaces, and/or individuals infected with the novel coronavirus” and have not been provided with sufficient protective devices and hazardous duty pay differentials or environmental differentials as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations.
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