U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are seeking more personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, expressing concerns that their work leaves them unnecessarily vulnerable, according to the president of the union chapter representing agents at the country’s busiest ports of entry.
“We are here exposed to a silent and invisible attack, and we're taking these situations home with our families,” said CBP officer Jorge Llanos, president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 105, which represents nearly 4,000 CBP employees in the San Diego sector.
Llanos told CQ Roll Call that CBP officers process 60,000 to 70,000 people who cross back and forth along the U.S. southern border every day through the San Diego area, including the San Ysidro port of entry, the busiest in the nation.
The local union chapter says it needs more masks, goggles and gloves because of the volume of daily interaction along the border. It also wants more coronavirus testing kits.
“We are extremely low in existing quantities and we have to sparingly use them,” Llanos, a 20-year agency veteran, said of the requested supplies. “We will be open to other options, but social distancing is not enough.”
The union said CBP employees in his sector also had been allowed to reduce their weekly schedules to limit physical public interaction by taking advantage of a paid time off policy. Most were allowed to reduce their schedules by eight hours. But then agents learned last week CBP abruptly canceled the paid "weather and leave" policy and were instructed to resume their full 40-hour shifts, despite a dramatic drop in border activity following last month’s clamp down on U.S. borders by the Trump administration.
Derrick Arnold, vice president of the local union chapter that Llanos heads, told CQ Roll Call that CBP workers weren't provided an explanation of why the Department of Homeland Security ordered officers to return to their full schedules.
“We're going to work every single day protecting our nation's borders but we’re in the dark, essentially. We're not being told all the information or actually being given all the opportunities to protect ourselves like we would like to,” Arnold said. “What we're trying to do is we're trying to stop becoming the next New York because we're in contact with that many people.”
DHS, which oversees CBP, did not respond to CQ Roll Call inquiries about the leave policy or the union’s request for additional protective equipment.
As of April 14, there were at least 236 CBP officers who tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to CBP's website Thursday. Of those cases, 21 were employees in California.
Llanos said that, in addition to having more protective gear, allowing CBP officers to reduce their work hours could help provide a bigger backup of employees should more people test positive for COVID-19.
Anthony Reardon, the union’s national president, said the same thing in a letter he wrote last week to DHS leaders seeking reinstatement of the paid leave policy.
“As you know, the pandemic and related restrictions on cross-border travel have reduced border crossings by as much as 75 percent, if not more in some locations, resulting in greatly reduced activity at the ports. This provided the opportunity for CBP to adjust work schedules and use weather and safety leave to reduce current staffing, thereby creating more distance between employees at work, while reducing the number of employees interacting with each other and the public,” Reardon said in his letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and CBP’s acting commissioner, Mark Morgan.
“This concept of preserving bench strength, not sending all of one’s troops into battle in the first wave, or whatever metaphor you want to use, has been widely adopted by other law enforcement and first responder organizations during the current pandemic, including the New York Police Department," he said.
Congressional lawmakers have also expressed concerns about the safety of CBP officers amid the pandemic.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., last week criticized DHS for canceling the paid leave policy.
“This decision unnecessarily puts the health and safety of CBP officers at risk, potentially undermining their mission and exacerbating community spread of COVID-19 at our borders,” he wrote in a letter to Wolf and Morgan.
Reardon, whose union represents 33 federal agencies and nearly 28,000 CBP employees, said failure by DHS to make changes will have a severe impact on both the mental and physical health of workers.
“They want to work, they want to do the job, but with a decision like this, it has just really negatively impacted in a huge way the morale,” he told CQ Roll Call. “So what these officers are left to conclude is that they aren't valued and that this agency doesn't care about them.”