coronavirus

Family Says VA Worker Forced to Go Back to Work 5 Days After Exposure to Virus

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The family of an employee of the Washington DC VA Medical Center, who eventually died from complications with COVID-19, said he was required to work inside the hospital while symptomatic.

Calvin Richardson’s mother said he was exposed to the virus at the hospital, requested vacation leave and was experiencing fever when he was asked to return to work at the hospital in early April.

Richardson’s case is one of a series of complaints against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs alleging some managers at VA hospitals in the U.S. are denying paid sick or vacation leave to workers with symptoms or preexisting health conditions.

The News-4 I-Team has learned the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee has launched a formal inquiry into the VA’s leave policy and whether some managers are breaking agency policy by denying requests for paid leave and telework.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents thousands of VA employees nationwide, told the I-Team they have heard reports from at least four other VA medical centers nationwide about employees requesting, but not obtaining, sick or vacation leave during the outbreak. Those employees were notified they would be classified as “AWOL,” absent without leave, if they failed to show to work as ordered. AWOL is a form of misconduct for federal workers, which can result in disciplinary action and be listed in an employee’s permanent record.

Richardson's mother said her son requested to use vacation leave at the outset of the pandemic because he suffered pre-existing health conditions that put him at risk of a bad outcome from coronavirus.

“Calvin said I want to use my vacation time. He had lots of vacation time. They said no. They said if you try to use your vacation time, you will be carried “AWOL” in the system,” Doris Richardson said.

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Doris Richardson said her son was likely exposed to the virus while working inside the medical center in March. She said he was sent to quarantine, but was called back to work within five days, despite being symptomatic and having a doctor’s note detailing his pre-existing conditions.

“Why would they call him back to work and allow him to work there with others with a temperature?” she said.

Calvin Richardson tested positive for COVID 19 in early April and was hospitalized on Easter weekend. He died nearly a week later, his family said. His mother said she worries Calvin exposed colleagues or patients before his testing and hospitalization.

“He was there and there is a possibility he was infecting other people,” she said. “That is concerning to me.”

A second DC VA Medical Center employee who requested anonymity because he said he fears retaliation for speaking to news media, said he was denied a request to use leave time or perform telework. He said he declined to come to work at the hospital because of pre-existing conditions and was classified as AWOL for multiple days.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did not answer specific questions about complaints from its employees or Ricahrdson’s family, but said the agency is “immediately isolating employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms as appropriate.”

In a statement, the agency said, “The Washington DC VA Medical Center is following CDC guidance which states that health care providers who have tested positive for COVID-19 can return to work after they have been asymptomatic for 10 days and at least 3 days have passed since recovery, defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications, and improvement in respiratory symptoms.”

The I-Team has learned the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee is investigating whether some VA hospital managers nationwide are disregarding agency policies and denying leave requests from employees who fear they were exposed.

In a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs released Thursday, the committee said, “Providing paid leave when a VA employee becomes ill with COVID-19 helps protect these employees from undue financial hardship caused by lost wages. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act expanded paid sick leave for federal workers, including those at VA, who are quarantined, among other reasons. However, the Committee continues to hear that some employees have been denied this leave.”

The agency has not publicly released a response to the committee’s letter.

A News4 I-Team review of agency records shows at least 54 employees have tested positive for coronavirus at the Washington DC VA Medical Center. Richardson’s is the only know employee death. At least 320 patients have tested positive for the virus at the hospital. There are 32 known deaths.

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