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Arkansas VA Workers Call For Enhanced COVID-19 Protections

Daniel Breen

While Labor Day traditionally celebrates the legacy of trade unions and the larger labor movement in the United States, some union members in Arkansas say they’re not being afforded proper protections by the federal government during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees’ National VA Council held a socially-distanced protest in North Little Rock on Monday calling for a new contract between workers and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Barbara Whitson-Casanova is a registered nurse with the VA and the president of the union’s Local 2054.

“We've not been able to come to agreement on most articles of our contract. Our contract is very important because it sets the parameters for pandemics, health and safety is a big component of that contract, our rights during that. It sets the tone for the disciplinary process,” Whitson-Casanova said.

Whitson-Casanova says she and union members across the country are calling for VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to revise their contract to provide more personal protective equipment, or PPE, and hazard pay for staff in a series of protests this week.

She says, because the VA is a federal government organization, its workers are not afforded the same protections as healthcare workers in the private sector.

“The governor has given them flexible leave, they've given them extra pay, I think they're still having challenges with PPE but they’ve beefed it up. We’re subject to get our own [PPE] or use their one mask a week,” Whitson-Casanova said. “Working from home is not available to us even when our jobs could be 100% telework, and theoretically reduce the exposure to the workers and ultimately our veterans.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Wilkie has said his department has struggled to provide PPE to staff members because of increased competition for resources with states and municipalities.

Whitson-Casanova says VA healthcare workers exposed to COVID-19 are also forced to use their personal leave time for self-quarantine.

“If you have that leave, it is reimbursed to you sometimes in the future, and then [if] you come up negative for COVID, you don't get it,” Whitson-Casanova said. “I know many who their leave has been exhausted and then they're forced to either be put in a leave without pay position, or worse, an AWOL position, which could then lead to discipline.”

Whitson-Casanova said some protections for front-line VA workers have been passed, but are still left to individual managers’ decisions. She said her union’s members have reached out to Arkansas’s congressional delegation to push for protections for VA healthcare workers similar to ones implemented at the state level by the governor and General Assembly.

The AFGE is the largest union representing federal government employees and represents more than 270,000 Veterans Affairs workers across the country.

UPDATE: A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sent the following statement in regard to the AFGE's demonstrations: 

"AFGE’s comments lack credibility considering that during the pandemic, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System employees have provided life-saving care to more than 353 COVID patients while adhering to safety practices that have limited its current COVID employee infection rate to 0.5 percent. The pandemic tested America’s health care infrastructure like few events have in anyone’s living memory, and the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System passed that test because it worked together as a team. Union bosses should be praising this teamwork rather than trying to sow division."

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.
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