Union leaders for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers along the U.S.-Mexico Border expressed concerns about the risks of illness and death among members and the general public due to changes in policies previously used to enable social distancing at ports of entry.
Leaders of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) who represent CBP officers and employees in the San Diego, El Paso, and Rio Grande Valley Sectors spoke with Breitbart Texas about their concerns relating to protecting their members and the traveling public from the Coronavirus pandemic. Most specifically, the union leaders say CBP canceled the Weather and Safety Leave program for employees along the northern and southern U.S. borders.
“Previously, the Weather and Safety Leave program allowed for fewer numbers of CBP officers to be online at any given time,” NTEU Chapter 105 President Jorge Llanos told Breitbart Texas in a phone interview this week. “After CBP canceled the program only for employees assigned to our northern and southern borders, we have too many people working and it is harder to maintain social distancing while at work.”
“CBP has safety guidelines in place to protect workers from people who may have been exposed to the Coronavirus,” Chapter 105 Vice President Derrick Arnold explained. “These guidelines are not being enforced–placing our employees and the traveling public at risk.”
The San Diego Sector, with multiple ports of entry, is the busiest in the nation in terms of processing travelers to and from Mexico, the union leaders said.
Union officials said CBP management canceled the Weather and Safety Policy for employees assigned to the nation’s northern and southern borders but left it in place for employees in other types of ports. They also said CBP did not tell the officers why the program was canceled.
“We now have two employees in our sector who tested positive for COVID-19,” Chapter 105 Treasurer Alfonso Ortiz told Breitbart on Saturday. “CBP officials won’t tell us how many officers have been isolated because of this or exactly where the employees who contracted the virus work.”
“This is very bad for employee morale,” Ortiz explained. “Our workers feel like the agency doesn’t care about their health and safety.”
Breitbart Texas reached out to CBP officials in Washington, D.C., about the concerns expressed by union officials.
“Although the CBP Office of Field Operations (OFO) had systematically decreased the number of mission-critical personnel at certain ports of entry through the use of telework, Weather and Safety Leave (WSL), and reductions in port hours, COVID-19 related requirements at the northern and southern land borders have led to the mobilization of CBP officers, who may have been previously authorized Weather and Safety Leave,” CBP spokesman Nathan Peters told Breitbart News. “This decision was necessary to further ensure we protect the American people from the spread of COVID-19 as we prepare for the potential increased influx of migrants along our land borders who may carry the virus.”
NTEU chapter leaders in the El Paso and Brownsville Sectors told Breitbart Texas that CBP officials informed them that officers need to be available to supplement U.S. Border Patrol agents if they need assistance.
NTEU Chapter 143 (El Paso) President John Monahan told Breitbart Texas, “Border Patrol doesn’t need us.” He said he communicates regularly with his counterparts in the National Border Patrol Council who said their agents’ workload is way down as a result of the pandemic.
In Brownsville, Texas, NTEU Chapter 160 President Donald H. Cadriel told Breitbart Texas that CBP’s decision to abruptly cancel the Weather and Safety Leave program has seriously affected the morale of officers who are on the front line in defending ports of entry at border crossings.
“CBP talks a lot about caring for us as a family,” Cadriel said. “Abruptly canceling the leave program within a week of its implementation makes officers feel like agency leaders don’t care about them.”
Union leaders in all three of the sectors who spoke with Breitbart expressed the fear their employees at work and their families face when they return home at the end of their shifts.
“This (COVID-19) is something that kills people,” Cadriel said. “We are on the front line and can’t telework. We have to do the job and our people are terrified.”
“We are concerned about our safety, the safety of the public, and the safety of our families,” he Rio Grande Valley chapter president continued. “When we go home we go to extreme measures to protect our families.”
He said those measures include completely removing clothes and shoes before entering their houses and going directly to shower before speaking with family members.
In El Paso, Monahan said at least seven CBP employees in his sector tested positive for COVID-19. “Four of the seven worked the same shift on the same international bridge,” the El Paso chapter president said. “When our officers meet with the traveling public, we are less than three feet apart. Social distancing is impossible to maintain and that puts us at risk.”
“The Weather and Safety Leave program lessened our exposure to people who might be infected,” he said. “Now we have an over-abundance of people at work but our traffic is down 70 to 80 percent.”
Union officials in all three sectors said they would like to see some type of Plexiglass barrier between the officers and the traveler.
“When we talk to travelers, they are as close as two or three feet,” San Diego chapter President Llanso told Breitbart. “They don’t have to sneeze or cough to expose you to the virus. Simple conversations can spread droplets that could infect the officer with the virus. We also see people holding their documents in their mouths or inside their clothing as they approach for inspection. We have to touch those documents.”
“We meet people from all over the world, and we don’t know where they are coming from or what they have been exposed to,” Llano continued. “We face people who tell us they have COVID-19 or they have been exposed to the virus all the time.”
Treasurer Ortiz said CBP officers also come in close physical contact with potential contamination when searching cars and personal baggage for drugs or other unauthorized items.
“Let’s face it,” Ortiz said, “we are just close to people all the time.”
The union officials all said they aren’t asking for things that CBP leadership is not already authorized to do. All three sector union leaders said the Weather and Safety Leave program is crucial to protecting the officers and the public from the spread of the Coronavirus.
“We know that sometimes their hands are tied,” Llanos concluded. “But this is a very special circumstance.”
CBP officials responded:
Consistent with the Administration’s social distancing guidelines, the CBP workforce is teleworking to the extent possible. CBP has ensured that personnel who cannot telework have ready access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including nitrile gloves and N95 respirators, as well as comprehensive guidance for the use of that equipment. We have also issued cleaning guidelines to all CBP facilities specifically to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
All CBP employees have access to an online resource portal that was established in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak to provide up-to-date health and safety information. Among other information, the resource portal contains risk exposure guidance, job-specific PPE guidelines, workforce support resources, and CDC prevention guidance. CBP leadership, including the Senior Medical Advisor, are providing frequent video and written updates to keep employees informed about this quickly evolving pandemic.
CBP’s Senior Medical Advisor and Occupational Safety and Health team established robust procedures to ensure that any member of the CBP workforce who is exposed to COVID-19 receives appropriate and timely medical evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. All employees at facilities where an exposure has occurred are notified at the earliest opportunity. Employees who have been in direct contact with a colleague who has tested positive for COVID-19 are provided with guidance based on the specific risks associated with the exposure.
CBP will continue to take appropriate precautions to keep our employees, their families and the American people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of April 16 (the last numbers available from CBP), the agency reports 246 employees tested positive for COVID-19.
Bob Price serves as associate editor and senior news contributor for the Breitbart Texas-Border team. He is an original member of the Breitbart Texas team. Price is a regular panelist on Fox 26 Houston’s What’s Your Point? Sunday-morning talk show. Follow him on Twitter @BobPriceBBTX and Face