Washington D.C. – With no justification and no notice, prudent steps to protect the health and safety of Customs and Border Protection personnel have been withdrawn at land border ports. The National Treasury Employees Union today announced its objection to this sudden change.
CBP began notifying local NTEU representatives late Monday that local port arrangements to temporarily limit the amount of time employees spend in contact with travelers and coworkers are canceled at ports along the northern and southern borders. NTEU represents about 25,000 CBP employees in the Office of Field Operations who staff 328 airports, sea ports and land ports of entry around the country.
In a letter sent today to Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan, the union asked for an immediate return to the reduced schedules.
“The temporarily revised work schedules in CBP’s Office of Field Operations that enabled more time off for Officers represented CBP at its best, responding to a crisis. The adjustments were the product of urgent discussions between employee representatives and management, with the twin goals of delivering the mission while promoting the health of the Officers. Indeed, those two goals merge, because effective mission delivery isn’t possible without a healthy workforce,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon wrote in the letter.
The agreements were reached in late March as the number of international travelers slowed and crossings at the northern and southern ports of entry dipped by as much as 75 percent. This allowed CBP to adjust schedules to limit the number of CBP personnel at ports while still meeting operational needs. It additionally provides a means to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to limit the spread of coronavirus by staying home and avoiding groups as much as possible. The agreements were a smart way for local port officials to protect their employees, follow public health recommendations and respond to the lower volumes of international travelers. Under the revised schedules, CBP employees on leave were subject to recall and had to be ready to return to the port at a moment’s notice, should the need arise.
As coronavirus began to spread in the United States, the ports—including airports and land border crossings—were fully staffed as personnel directly interacted with international travelers, many of whom came directly from or had recently traveled to other places where the virus was widely transmitted between individuals. That interaction has taken a toll on this frontline workforce that has more than 160 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to CBP-wide figures, and many more employees in quarantine.
“CBP is making a grave mistake by rescinding these adjusted schedules,” Reardon said. “CBP has not given us a valid reason for sending more frontline federal employees into harm’s way than is necessary, so we are asking CBP leadership to reverse this short-sighted decision and restore the ports’ ability to protect the health and safety of CBP employees.”
CBP’s explanation that Border Patrol needs the assistance of port officers to stop an influx between the ports of illegal border crossers with COVID-19 is not backed up by any available evidence. By canceling the weather and safety leave, CBP will require personnel at the ports of entry to report to the port when there is no operational need putting these employees in unnecessary danger.
“CBP Office of Field Operations and Port Directors working collaboratively with employee representatives to protect federal workers without sacrificing agency mission sent an encouraging and strong message to CBP employees that CBP cares about their well-being and that of their families,” Reardon said. “That good will is now being squandered.”
NTEU represents 150,000 employees at 33 federal agencies and departments.