Federal workers' union asks for protective gear for workers

By TIM LOCKETTE | The Anniston Star | Published: March 24, 2020

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ANNISTON, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — The biggest labor union for federal workers on Monday called for personal protective equipment for employees who have to go to work despite the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

The move comes as the Local 1945 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at Anniston Army Depot, is calling for the Department of Defense to rethink its requirements for workers deemed essential.

"I think we've got to start looking at this as pandemic," said Charles Barclay, president of Local 1945. "We've got to start looking at how many essential employees you really need in this situation."

Anniston Army Depot repairs and refurbishes armored vehicles and small arms for the Department of Defense. It's Calhoun County's biggest employer.

Last week, as schools began a state-ordered shutdown and restaurants faced state orders to stop serving sit-down meals, the depot announced its own measures to stop the spread of disease. Workers who can telecommute were asked to do so, depot officials said, and the depot began to consider "safety leave" for workers who couldn't telecommute and had medical conditions that would put them at risk if they caught the virus.

In an interview over the weekend, Barclay said the Department of Defense needs to put more options on the table — both to stop the spread of disease and to accommodate workers whose lives have been disrupted by anti-virus measures.

"We've got people who are using their own leave because of child care," Barclay said. "We've got people who are using their own leave and they won't get it back."

The national leaders of AFGE on Monday called on Congress to approve funding to provide federal workers with personal protective equipment if they do have to work. The union also called for an automatic presumption of workplace illness for federal workers who catch coronavirus if their job requires interaction with the public and for three months of paid medical and family leave for federal workers affected by the virus.

“Despite this growing pandemic, our members are coming to work every day to deliver essential services to the American people,” AFGE national president Everett Kelley was quoted as saying in a press release Monday.

Barclay, in a text message over the weekend, said employees have been asking for the depot to shut down to avoid spread of the virus, but in a telephone interview later he said the union itself has not called for a shutdown.

Congress has been mulling a massive economic relief package, including aid for workers who’ve lost their incomes due to the virus. That bill had yet to pass Monday as Democrats and Republicans haggled over the exact provisions of the proposal.

Attempts to reach depot officials for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

It’s unclear how many depot workers are working from home, and how many are expected to be sent home on safety leave.

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