Union accuses VA of 'endangering' veterans, medical staff during coronavirus pandemic

Photo credit Photo by 1st Sgt. Rodolfo Armando Barrios Quinones
This story originally published April 7, 2020 at 4:18 p.m. It was updated April 8 at 11:20 a.m.

A union representing hundreds of thousands of Department of Veterans Affairs employees accused the agency of "endangering" medical staff and the veterans they care for. 

The American Federation of Government Employees, a union which represents 260,000 VA employees among other federal government workers, announced Tuesday that it filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaint with the Department of Labor, accusing VA of violating worker health and safety rights by "failing to take recommended actions" to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

The union alleges VA "failed to keep workers free from known hazards" and said the agency directed staff who had come in contact with or been in close proximity to people with virus symptoms, to report to work "without regard to the 14-day self-quarantine guidelines" issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

VA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the allegations. 

Veteran patients and VA medical staff, including nurses, at VA hospitals and clinics across the country, previously told Connecting Vets that they or their colleagues were asked to work despite having contact with symptomatic individuals or even if they were showing symptoms themselves. 

As of April 7, at least 1,007 Veterans Health Administration staff had tested positive for the virus, with the highest concentration in New Orleans with 83. 

"In accordance with CDC guidelines and the employees’ clinical status, the employees are all in isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Tuesday. 

VA leaders say they can handle coronavirus, but employees worry about response, testing

At least one VA doctor tested positive for the virus but still saw patients before quarantine. 

The union accused VA of further violating OSHA standards by failing to provide workers with N095 respirators "and other necessary personal protective equipment (PPE)" as well as "failing to isolate suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients and refusing to provide COVID-19 testing to employees who have been exposed to those known or suspected of having the virus." 

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie previously said VA had enough PPE to go around, but nurses and other medical staff at VA hospitals told Connecting Vets repeatedly that they either didn't have PPE or were given limited supplies.

Supplies at some VAs were so limited that nurses were told to reuse supplies like masks, "which we were told to wear until the snaps broke off," one nurse said, adding that they did not receive the masks until the last week of March. Those staff members spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation.

Previously, VA employees and their families told Connecting Vets they were weighing quitting for their own safety against their responsibility to care for veterans. 

When veterans told Connecting Vets they tried to purchase masks for the nurses who care for them, but the nurses were not allowed to wear them, VA denied the allegation. 

VA officials said hospitals were following CDC guidance for masks and other personal protective equipment. 

"CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19," Bobbi Gruner, deputy director of the VA's Dallas Regional Public Affairs Office, said on April 1. "A facemask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of facemasks also is crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a health care facility)."

Noel denied that VA has any supply shortages, though. 

"All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain," Noel told Connecting Vets. "VA facilities are using PPE in accordance with CDC guidelines, and all employees have the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as per those guidelines." 

Shortages of personal protective equipment such as masks are not unique to VA -- hospitals nationwide have struggled to supply staff with PPE throughout the crisis.

“The federal government is failing to do everything it can to protect workers who are on the front lines of this health-care crisis, and in some cases it is willfully doing the opposite – exposing not only workers but vulnerable populations to this deadly virus,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. “These actions and inactions are inexcusable and are literally endangering people’s lives.”


Veterans Crisis Line

AFGE is also raising concerns about Veterans Crisis Line employees in Atlanta after management allegedly denied employees the ability to telework. 

Weeks ago, Wilkie told Veteran Service Organization leaders that calls to the crisis line had spiked over the coronavirus. 

“VA is not taking this crisis seriously, and they are putting employee lives in jeopardy. Since February, the union has been telling management to get high-risk employees out of the building,” Marcia Blane, AFGE Local 518 president, said in a statement. “On any given shift there are nearly 70 employees, without any personal protective equipment, working in cubicles less than six feet apart, and sharing a single, working elevator. How can the VA honestly believe they are protecting employees?”

At least one employee tested positive and the union alleged crisis line management delayed telling employees, some of whom now are using personal leave to get tested and self-quarantine. 

“Each day we speak to hundreds of panicked, stressed out, and sometimes suicidal, veterans from across the country. If our services are disrupted because the VA didn’t take appropriate steps to protect employees, where will these veterans turn?” Blane said. “VCL employees must be allowed to telework until the coronavirus pandemic is under control.” 

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets that the crisis line "requires" that staff are "on-site at its facilities to maintain call quality, call reliability and effective call monitoring." 

She said the crisis line is "fast-tracking" a system to provide virtual or telework capabilities, "and in the meantime, the line is following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards while conducting regular deep cleanings of work areas." 

Noel also said, according to CDC guidance and VA protocols, crisis line employees with COVID-19 symptoms "are screened daily and asked to return home to prevent potential spread to others." 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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