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Congress must enact a plan to keep government workers safe

As states, schools, businesses, and government agencies rush to reopen in the shadow of COVID-19, the story of my late husband — a federal employee who was exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace and died from it — offers a cautionary tale. The risks posed by the virus are real and if strict precautions aren’t taken, many more will die. Our leaders at the federal, state, and local levels need a coordinated approach to ensuring worker safety that is based on science

My husband Chai Suthammanont worked in the kitchen of a Child Development Center (CDC) at Marine Corps Base Quantico. In March 2020, despite the spreading virus, two CDCs at Quantico were combined; all administrative staff, care givers/teachers, kitchen staff, and children of essential personnel were put together in one center. In April, childcare providers and teachers were placed on automatic two-week furloughs to effect social distancing; administrative staff were returned to their original CDC, ostensibly for training.

For reasons still unknown, the CDC kitchen staff remained doubled, even though the number of children were a fraction of normal attendance. When Chai expressed concern about continuing to work in the crowded kitchen, he received conflicting guidance about what was required to be excused from work. In fact, there were at least three different leave policies sent to different employees, but not to Chai, despite his age of 68. Since he had no underlying medical conditions and had not received any of the information, he thought he wasn’t eligible for excused leave.

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, my husband was notified that he had come into 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. After several weeks of fighting the virus, including 13 days on a ventilator, he died on May 26. It took just a cough to end our 27 years together.

As I mourn the death of my beloved husband, who leaves behind four adoring sons, grandchildren, his 99-year-old father and a large extended family, my heart aches at the prospect that others will suffer similar fates if adequate protections aren’t put in place to protect them. Recent news reports estimate that more than 39,000 federal employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations can and should take steps to reduce the spread of the virus and protect their employees. Lives are depending on it.

To date, the decision to reopen the federal government has been left to agency leadership. But as early as April, the administration informed federal agencies that “the Federal government is actively planning to ramp back up government operations to the maximum extent possible.” Yet Government Accountability Office (GAO) Managing Director Chris Mihm recently testified before Congress that GAO hadn’t seen a comprehensive reopening plan. He warned that “employees have to have confidence, that, as we reopen, they will be safe in the workplace and they’ll be safe in their interactions with the public.”

Our congressman, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), has taken up the cause of fighting for federal employee safety. Under the Chaicharn Suthammanont Remembrance Act (H.B. 7340), co-sponsored by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif), and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), federal agencies would be required to publish online a plan to re-open a federal office building at least 30 days prior to the return of federal employees. The plans would be required to include:

  • A description of the personal protective equipment that will 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.

Clear, consistent, transparent agency policies are needed to ensure workers — and members of the public in contact with federal agencies, like the Social Security Administration — are aware of how they are being protected, as well as their own responsibilities to protect others. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress for the federal government to take these commonsense steps and keep their employees safe. I wish they were in place in April when they could have protected Chai. They could now save many others. So do it now, before it’s too late.

Christina Suthammanont lives in Fairfax, Va.

Tags Brenda Lawrence Carolyn Maloney Eleanor Holmes Norton Gerry Connolly Jackie Speier Jamie Raskin John Sarbanes Ro Khanna Stephen Lynch

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