Five federal employees, including a Food Safety and Inspection Service inspector, have sued the federal government for hazard pay for working during the coronavirus crisis.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs seek to represent a class of federal employees who have been exposed to objects, surfaces or individuals infected with the virus since Jan. 27, arguing those General Schedule (GS) employees should receive 25% hazard pay because of their exposure to “virulent biologicals.” The lawsuit also seeks 4% or 8% increases in pay for Wage Grade (WG) employees who have worked with or close to “hazardous microorganisms,” depending on the availability and effectiveness of personal protective equipment.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Heidi Burakiewicz said the difference in percentage “is a product of the statute that authorizes this pay. General Schedule, or GS, employees such as our plaintiff who works for the USDA are entitled to 25% when they are exposed to virulent biologicals. Wage Grade employees are entitled to either 8% or 4%.” 

“Each day front-line federal employees willingly risk their health and their families’ health to provide critical services to the American people,” said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “It is our hope that the government does right by these employees and pays them the hazardous duty pay they’ve earned.”

USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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Kelley also urged Congress to pass legislation “to provide hazardous duty pay to all front-line federal employees not already covered by existing laws, like our nurses in federal prisons, transportation security officers at airports, and health care workers at the VA who provide direct patient care to our nation’s veterans.”

The lawsuit seeks class-action status for what it estimates are more than 100,000 federal employees, but says “only the [government’s] own records will reveal the actual number of federal employees.”

Robert DePriest, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the “best-case scenario” would be if the government simply agreed to pay the premium for hazardous work. Another possibility, he said, is that Congress will address the issue in upcoming legislation. Democrats had tried to secure hazard pay for feds in the recently passed $2 trillion stimulus bill, but were unsuccessful.

The FSIS inspector, Brenda Braswell, during the week of March 2 “performed work in close proximity to objects, surfaces, and/or individuals infected with COVID-19 when she performed work in the same facility as at least one food industry employee who was infected with COVID-19,” the lawsuit said. She works at a Tyson Foods poultry plant in Arkansas. The other four employees work at the Bureau of Prisons and the Veterans Affairs Department.

The complaint was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (Braswell v. U.S., 20-359C), by Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C., in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with AFGE.

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