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'Like Our Safety Doesn't Matter': VA High-Risk Employees Say They Aren't Safe Amid Pandemic

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) - As thousands of federal employees across the nation have been asked to come back to work this week, employees at the Veteran's Affairs Eastern Colorado Health System in Aurora are speaking out to CBS4 Investigates, saying it's not safe. Many immunocompromised VA employees say they've had a hard time being allowed to work from home.

VA of Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Aurora (credit: Kati Weis, CBS4)

"There's a lot of office jobs that could be modified in some way to do from home, and they just didn't seem interested in doing that for so many people," said one employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "(Makes me feel) like they don't really care, like our safety doesn't matter, that our patients, our veterans aren't very important, they just want us there and if we get sick they'll just find someone else to come take our place until they get sick."

The employee told CBS4 that even though they had a doctor's order not to return to work, management pressured them to come back in, threatening they could lose their position if they didn't.

AFGE Union President Bernard Humbles said he's also spoken with several employees who have been given a hard time about needing to work from home.

"We felt that the telework agreements had not been put out fast enough," Humbles said. "Those employees who are immunocompromised, management really needs to take a look at them and find a way to let them work from home."

There's also a private Facebook group with more than 8,000 members. It's full of comments from concerned VA employees across the country, echoing those at the Aurora VA.

"The group itself is to lend a hand and say you're not alone during this crisis," said another VA employee in another state, who is a member of the group.

That employee said they've been trying to get approved for telework for months, but still hasn't gotten an answer, even though their office job could be done at home. While they wait for approval, they remain on unpaid leave, and are having to collect unemployment assistance.

"We are being treated like we are the cause of this virus, and we're going to reprimand you for this," the out-of-state employee said.

But Aurora VA Director Michael Kilmer said he hasn't heard of those complaints.

Kilmer also said the Aurora VA has granted 483 telework accommodations out of its 3,000 employees, and has denied 0 telework requests.

VA WORK FROM HOME 10 PKG.transfer_frame_598
(credit: CBS)

"So, we were very proactive in granting that, and those don't affect your pay, you're either placed in a different duty where you are safe, or you're allowed to work from home," Kilmer said.

But for those who must return to work, employees are worried, because unlike some other facilities, the Aurora VA isn't conducting any temperature checks when people enter the building. Kilmer said the VA is asking screening questions upon entry, and the VA will assume responsibility for any worker who tests positive for COVID-19.

"I used every tool, or every policy in my authority, to ensure the safety of our staff," Kilmer said. "I believe in our staff so much that I will automatically assume that any VA staff over here comes up COVID positive, regardless of community spread, I will assume they got it here at work."

Some encouraging words for otherwise frustrated workers.

"For us to take care of our veteran patients, we have to be taken care of, as well," said the anonymous employee working at the Aurora VA. "If you take care of us, we'll take care of those who have served us."

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