Federal Workforce Sick Civilians Are Sparking Airwaves

While the omicron variant is fueling a record rise in covid-19 cases, it is also disrupting a federal civilian workforce of 2 million. It has delayed drug approvals, diplomats’ overseas trips and the processing of tax returns, as workers call in sick, quarantine or stay home to care for family members. sick.

The Transportation Security Administration, which staffs security checkpoints at airports and other transportation hubs, has more than 3,500 employees with active covid-19 infections. More than 18,000 of the agency’s 65,000 employees have tested positive for the virus, according to the agency.

“Communities and transportation systems have been hit hard by the rise in Covid infections, and we continue to encourage those who are sick to stay home,” said R. Carter Langston, a spokesperson for the agency, in an email. “The safety of our employees and the traveling public remains our top priority.”

A shortage of officers forced the closure of two checkpoints at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s busiest terminal earlier this month. “Consolidations” of checkpoints at the airport are continuing and other airports may be affected by labor shortages in the future, the agency said Thursday.

A Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the government’s response, said individual agencies are updating their protocols to reflect the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Government employees continue to carry out the agency’s vital missions, the official added.

But in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Texas, a shortage of Agriculture Department inspectors at slaughterhouses and packing facilities is slowing production and raising prices, said Paula Schelling-Soldner, chair of the joint council. food inspectors from the American Federation of Government Employees.

“The impact is going to be if there aren’t enough inspectors and there’s also a shortage of factory workers, there’s going to be a shortage of meat and poultry across the country,” Schelling-Soldner said. . “Just like there was at the start of the pandemic.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a statement that there have been no “widespread slowdowns or shutdowns in production” caused by inspector absences. The agency is monitoring the situation and requiring employees to wear masks when federal inspectors are present, according to the statement.

For cattle and hogs, longer wait times mean higher feed costs and larger animals to process, increasing expenses and reducing efficiency for companies like Tyson Foods Inc., Hormel Foods Corp. and Cargill Inc., according to a Bloomberg Intelligence memo released Thursday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said traffic volumes at some airports could be reduced and flights delayed during peak periods as many air traffic controllers have tested positive for the coronavirus, although there have been no reports yet. no widespread disturbance at present.

“As we have done since the start of the pandemic, we continue to work with the FAA to protect the health and safety of our frontline security professionals,” said Doug Church, deputy director of public affairs at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. an email.

The Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this month that it was postponing much of its inspection work “to ensure the safety of its employees and those of the companies it regulates as the agency further adapts to the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic and the spread of the omicron variant.”

The decision to shut down in-person facility inspections could delay the approval of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, said Kalah Auchincloss, a former senior FDA official who is now executive vice president of Greenleaf Health, a consulting firm. based in Washington that has the major drugmakers. and device manufacturers as customers.

“Their level of concern has been very high,” Auchincloss said. “The longer it drags on, the greater their concern will be.”

A previous pause in the agency’s inspection activities in 2020 led to nearly 70 missed approval dates, including those for drugs from companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Novartis, Auchincloss said.

The FDA said it plans to continue “critical work” but temporarily postponed some inspection activities until Wednesday “in hopes of restarting these activities as soon as possible.”

Federal courts in California, Tennessee, Ohio, Washington state and New Jersey have suspended in-person jury trials. The US District Court for the District of Columbia cited “an alarming explosion” of covid-19 cases when it suspended trials until January 24.

Sick postal workers are slowing mail delivery in some parts of the country. Troy Fredenburg, national sales agent for Region 7 of the National Letter Carriers Association, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that local staff has been reduced by 20% and some mail is not getting out on time.

The Postal Service said in a statement that it “continues to deliver while managing responses to employee availability issues due to Covid-19 cases.”

The Internal Revenue Service is already warning that funding cuts and staffing shortages due to the virus will cause delays in processing returns and refunds.

And State Department employees have complained that covid-19 restrictions at the agency have grounded all but the most essential travel, hampering diplomats’ ability to do their jobs.

“As the omicron variant continues to spread, the department is taking a cautious and judicious approach to travel plans, especially for overseas travel,” the State Department said.

Information for this article was provided by Susan Decker, Madison Alder, Laurel Calkins, Alan Levin, Mike Dorning, Michael Hirtzer and Justin Sink of Bloomberg News (WPNS).

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