About 4,000 federal employees are seeking disability compensation on grounds that they contracted the novel coronavirus at work, while survivors of 60 deceased employees are seeking death benefits for the same reason.
The total number of claims is expected to increase to 6,000 within weeks, according to a report that amounts to one of the first accountings of the pandemic’s impact on the health of the federal workforce.
The report by the Labor Department’s inspector general assessed coronavirus-related trends in workers’ compensation programs including the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, which covers the 2.1 million employees of executive branch departments and agencies plus the 630,000 employees of the semi-independent U.S. Postal Service.
Last year the FECA program paid some $3 billion in benefits to more than 200,000 people, mainly to compensate for lost wages of employees unable to work – temporarily or permanently – because of a work-related injury or illness. It also pays for medical and rehabilitation services for them as well as death benefits to survivors.
The report said that soon after the pandemic was declared in March, the FECA program took several steps to prepare for coronavirus-related claims, including to designate occupations such as law enforcement, first responders, and front-line medical and public health personnel as at the highest risk of contracting the virus while at work.
For those occupations, the program “will accept that the exposure to COVID-19 was proximately caused by the nature of the employment and will only require medical evidence that establishes a diagnosis of COVID-19, such as a positive COVID-19 test result,” it said. Those in other types of positions must show that the disease was employment-related, as with any other type of injury or illness claim.
Employees of three departments with high concentrations of jobs deemed to carry the highest risk of exposure – Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs – accounted for most of the 4,011 claims filed through July 23.
Of those, 1,623 had been granted, fewer than seven denied, 25 withdrawn and the rest were waiting to be adjudicated – including all of the death claims – according to data provided by the Labor Department that are more current than those in the inspector general report.
The government does not keep a central count of how many federal employees have remained at their regular workplaces through the pandemic vs, those working remotely or on paid leave.
However, the number of those in the types of positions the FECA program deems high-risk would be in the hundreds of thousands, even excluding the Postal Service, where relatively few jobs lend themselves to telework.
Nor is there a central count of the numbers of infections and deaths among federal employees. However, reports from just some of the largest agencies show nearly 19,000 infections and nearly 100 deaths, with both figures continuing to rise.
As of Friday, the largest, the Defense Department, reported 5,096 total infections among its roughly 750,000 civilian employees dating to March, of whom 257 were currently hospitalized and 1,841 recovered, with 32 deaths.
Separately, the department reported nearly 24,000 total cases and three deaths among uniformed military personnel.
The second largest agency, Veterans Affairs with some 380,000 employees, reported 452 active cases among its employees and 2,896 convalescent cases. Veterans Affairs reported 40 deaths.
Several of the biggest subagencies of the third largest department, Homeland Security, report data individually: Customs and Border Protection a total of 1,590 cases among its 60,000 employees and eight deaths; and the 64,000-employee Transportation Security Administration, 1,315 cases and six deaths.
The Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department, reports 397 current cases among its 36,000 employees, 648 recovered employees and one death. The Postal Service reports 6,190 infections but does not count deaths.
The increase in workplace compensation claims related to the virus follows months of controversies over the adequacy of protections that federal agencies provide their employees on the front lines – as well pay and benefit issues.
For example, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee recently said that at DHS, “the number of employees who currently have the virus is the highest it has been since reporting began in March. The number of employees who are in quarantine or self-isolating has similarly continued to rise.”
That included increases in positive tests in a two-week period of more than 50 percent at Customs and Border Protection and more than 40 percent at the Transportation Security agency, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a letter urging greater protections for employees.
Similar concerns have extended to the growing recalls of employees from telework or leave even as infections and deaths are rising nationally and are spiking in some areas.
At an agency that has been prominent in recalling employees, the Internal Revenue Service, “Employees remain anxious about the cleanliness of their workplace, the enforcement of social distancing rules, mask use, the health of their co-workers, hygiene supplies and timely notice when a colleague tests positive,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents most agency employees.
Employees there and at other agencies further are “at risk when they are required to travel using mass transit to and from their workplace, particularly in areas of the country where the virus is surging,” he said in an emailed statement.