RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — They’re on the frontlines protecting veterans but workers at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center say they’ve been denied protection and pay during the coronavirus pandemic.

Federal workers reached out to 8News and said they feared for their safety at the Richmond veteran’s hospital.  After 8News started asking questions, employees say there have been some improvements. Still, those improvements come as dozens of employees are now infected with the coronavirus.

As of Monday, 29 staff members at McGuire tested positive for COVID-19. Two additional people are awaiting results.

“It is scaring everybody,” says Mintina Minto Executive Vice President of the union that represents many of the hospital’s employees. “Everybody is scared for their life.”

Minto says she wasn’t surprised by complaints sent to 8News alleging a “total lack of concern for safety” and workers without masks. “I have also witnessed several employees that were not issued PPE and they were actually working with COVID positive patients,” says Minto.
Other workers say they were reprimanded when they tried to wear their own masks.

Mintina Minto and 8News Investigative reporter Kerri O’Brien

“We have received a lot of complaints from employees that did provide their own masks originally and they were threatened that they could receive disciplinary action,” Minto added.

8News reached out to McGuire and learned a day after that employees were handed a cloth mask. David Hodge, Acting Public Affairs Officer for McGuire told 8News in statement:

“Central Virginia is following CDC’s universal source control guidelines for mask wear. Unless a higher level of protection is required, and there are very specific instances when that is the case, patients and staff will be wearing cloth masks as provided by the health care system. Both patients and staff may bring and wear their own masks, and all are encouraged to clean their masks daily while following all of their other infectious control training, which includes frequent handwashing, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, etc.  Central Virginia VA Health Care System has been able to maintain an adequate supply of PPE throughout this national emergency.”

David Hodge, Acting Public Affairs Officer for McGuire

In the meantime, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2145 (AFGE) has requested hazard pay.

“There are other facilities that are currently paying 20 percent hazard pay to their employees during this pandemic,” Minto said. “They just kind of shut down any kind of communications or negotiations about that.”

Even more worrisome, Minto says some employees having to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 positive patients are not getting paid. She says, “I have employees they are getting AWOL’s (absent without leave) after taking care of our veterans.” Minto says it’s happening even though a memorandum shared with 8News from the VA’s Under Secretary of Health Richard Stone states those employees are entitled to what’s called “weather and safety leave.

“We can’t leave people without a paycheck after we left them with minimal PPE and exposed them to this pandemic,” Minto said.

Hodge told 8News, “Hazard pay is regulated under various United States Codes, to which VA adheres. In early April 2020, AFGE filed a lawsuit against five plaintiffs including the Bureau of Prisons, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Veterans Affairs. As such, the Agency will not comment on active litigation and the Director will not negotiate on items pending in the courts.”

VA’s number one priority is to keep staff and patients safe.  Health care workers are exposed to dangerous viruses and diseases on a daily basis, which is why they are mandated to take infectious disease training, bloodborne pathogen training, and other similar training designed to protect them from exposure and transmission of dangerous organisms.  As part of that undertaking, management also provides employees with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe.  The intent behind hazard pay is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected. 

David Hodge, Acting Public Affairs Officer for McGuire

Hodges adds VA employees, accrue paid annual and sick leave. He told 8News the VA encourages employees to use paid sick leave if they are ill, experiencing symptoms of any illness, or are diagnosed with COVID-19.  And in a statement to 8News, he adds:

“Staff may also apply for advanced sick leave, annual leave, or telework, if they are asymptomatic, have not tested positive and feel the need to self-quarantine.  Additionally, weather and safety leave may be granted if an employee is asymptomatic, has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and cannot telework

David Hodge, Acting Public Affairs Officer for McGuire

Additionally, the Central Virginia VA Health Care System’s PPE practices have helped limit its COVID-19 employee infection rates to 0.7 percent of the workforce. By contrast, 4.4 percent of the University of Washington Medicine employees have tested and 2.1 percent of Henry Ford Health System’s workforce has tested positive.

Yet, hours after 8News asked about those employees and their pay, the agency reached out to the union. 8News was told they said there were “communications errors” and they would work with the union on weather and safety leave.