COVID-19 Workplace Issues: Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions

What resources are available for hardship help?

If you are experiencing a hardship due to a furlough/layoff, financial struggles, or health problems, AFSCME members have access to many helpful resources.  Please visit our Hardship Help Page.

If I go on leave without pay and apply for unemployment compensation, how does this affect my health benefits?

Your health benefits would continue in this situation. If you are on LWOP for more than one (1) full pay period, you will receive a bill from the Pennsylvania Employee Benefits Trust Fund (PEBTF) for the required employee contribution/payment.

If I go on leave without pay and apply for unemployment compensation, how does this affect my seniority?

You do not continue to accrue seniority or leave while on LWOP or on unemployment compensations.  We have added this to our impact bargaining list.

After the POC ends, can I go back to work part time and use leave for the other portion of time?

We are working with the various agencies to determine if they will bring additional essential employees into work or if they will open up work for non-essential employees.

How will employees be cross trained? Will they take into consideration seniority?

If employees are willing to be cross trained, they should be selected by seniority.  We are working with the agencies on this.  The MRC is also compiling a list of employees who are willing to  be cross trained.

We still don’t have proper PPE, what should we do?

Please call AFSCME Council 13’s Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Should I wear a mask to work?

Yes. The Department of Corrections has fabricated masks and they will be delivered to worksites across the Commonwealth. Due to volume of employees, some worksites may not see them until Wednesday of next week (April 8). If you do not have a mask provided, please call AFSCME Council 13’s Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

I’m an essential employee. Does the announcement from the OA on April 3 pertain to me?

Possibly.  The need to choose between using paid leave or taking LWOP does not apply to essential employees unless you are not working a full day 7.5 or 8 hour work day or a full week 75 or 40 hour work week.  Once the POC ends, you will be required to use LWOP or paid leave to make up the difference.

If I have been laid off and I am collecting unemployment, how does that affect my seniority?

You do not accrue seniority while laid off.  Please note: The current plan to allow Commonwealth employees to use leave and/or take Unemployment Compensation is not the same as a lay off.

Will an employee be permitted to use LWOP at a later date if they are out of time and want to take a vacation or are sick?

The Commonwealth has not considered this yet as they are trying to manage the current operations.  They will work with the union and be flexible.

Will an employee be permitted to return to work if they want to or will they be required to use one of the leave options?

There is a critical need on UC side and OIM – maybe in UC but OIM is more difficult because of the work they do.  They are looking at opening up the ability to work in other areas like these.

We have proposed to allow employees to stay within their classification and possibly work within other agencies that are experiencing higher concentration of work at this time. The Commonwealth is committed to looking into this as a possibility and will keep the union informed as they work out the details.  We will continue to follow up with them in the near future.

Can we work with the PLCB to fabricate safety glass partitions for other agencies?

The Commonwealth did not say no to this idea. The union will look into this. We also suggested using our other trades employees to do this work.  If you are on our negotiation team, you know this is something that we have requested for years, but we have not been successful. However due to the current circumstances, we believe now is the time to really create our case. We have always believed in the need for this to protect our members, so hopefully this is a positive outcome.

Will contractors be let go before bargaining unit employees?

If or when we get into furlough mode, yes.  Right now, we have contractors who do work alongside our bargaining unit members in areas like IT and nursing.

In areas where we do not have existing agreements, will the employees be asked to return to work by seniority?

Yes, where all other things are equal.  Certifications and qualifications may be a factor depending on the nature of the work to be performed.  If all other things are equal, it will be done by seniority.  We need to monitor this and let management know where there are issues.

Will the employee’s use of sick leave disqualify them from being able to earn the additional leave outlined in Article 14 Section 13 and Recommendation 14 Section 13?

This is not something they have thought about.  We have added it to our list of impact bargaining items.

Will essential employees who are currently teleworking continue to be permitted to telework?

Yes, essential employees will continue to be permitted to telework. In the future, it is possible these employees will move to a hybrid plan (part telework and part report-to-work).

Will telework be offered to non-essential employees also?

Agencies are actively pursuing telework.  The first priority is for essential employees, but they are pursuing it for non-essential employees as well.  Finding laptops to purchase is very difficult right now.

If non-essential employees elect to file for unemployment, will they be guaranteed the ability to return to work?

Yes, the Commonwealth wants people to come back to work when this is over.

If an employee elects to use FMLA, is it unlimited or restricted to the 12-week entitlement?

Yes, still just the 12 weeks. The federal regulations are a work in progress, but as of now, this is what we have. The 12 weeks will count toward your entitlement for the year.

Are essential employees who call off subject to discipline?

If an employee is working and needs to call off, they need to follow the guidelines.  If they want to take a day off, they need to request it as usual and it will be subject to the employee’s ability to maintain operations.  The rules are still the same for requesting time off. We asked the OA to put this out to the agencies.

Will essential employees be able to utilize the same four options without repercussions?

Essential employees are entitled to the 10 days under  The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). For additional FAQs for essential employees, follow this link: https://www.oa.pa.gov/covidleave/Pages/default.aspx

How do we prevent managers from manipulating an employee’s essential status?

The managers would still have to justify why an employee was made essential.  If we see that this is a problem, we are to raise it with the agency, then with the OA if the agency does not rectify it.

After the POC ends, can a non-essential employee work some days and collect unemployment compensation on the others to maintain my benefits?

If you choose to use paid leave or LWOP, your health care benefits will continue. If you are on LWOP for more than one (1) full pay period, you will receive a bill from the Pennsylvania Employee Benefits Trust Fund (PEBTF) for the required employee contribution/payment.

Are you currently open if I need the union?

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak, AFSCME Council 13 and its district councils have restricted in-person visits to offices and will use phone/videoconferencing services to continue to serve members. Our MRC, District Councils and Council 13 staff have been working 24/7 to accommodate the thousands of employee representation requests. If you need help or have any questions, please reach out to us. AFSCME Council 13’s Member Resource Center can be reached at 1-800-5-AFSCME (1-800-523-7263).

If I have carryover leave, will I lose it as a result of the shutdown or be able to use it when I return to work?

AFSCME Council 13 entered a side agreement with the Office of Administration on March 24 to extend the 7-pay period for use of excess annual leave.  (Master Agreement Article 13: Section 8, Master Memorandum: Recommendation 13, Section 8)

Who is an emergency responder?

An employee who is necessary for the provision of transport, care, health care, comfort, and nutrition of patients, or whose services are otherwise needed to limit the spread of COVID-19. This includes, but is not limited to, military or national guard, law enforcement officers, correctional institution personnel, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, physicians, nurses, public health personnel, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, emergency management personnel, 911 operators, public works personnel, and persons with skills or training in operating specialized equipment or other skills needed to provide aid in a declared emergency, as well as individuals who work for facilities employing these individuals and whose work is necessary to maintain the operation of the facility. This will extend to all 24/7 facilities.

I’m a new Commonwealth employee. Can I anticipate leave?

Through discussions with AFSCME Council 13, the Office of Administration will allow employees with less than 30 days of service to be able to utilize annual or sick leave as appropriate.  In addition, employees with less than one year of service will be permitted to anticipate leave as appropriate.

I have been designated as an emergency responder, but I have not been reporting to work or teleworking. Why am I now considered a first responder?

Council 13 has been notified by many of the agencies of their designations.  We do not agree with all of them and are currently in discussions with those agencies.

Is there a hiring freeze for state positions? If so, and I was approved for a promotion or transfer to a new position, can they now rescind the promotion/transfer due to the hiring freeze?

Yes and yes. The Governor announced the hiring freeze on March 23. If you have further questions, please call Council 13’s Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Can my essential/non-essential status be changed?

Yes.  The Commonwealth has the right to change an employee’s status.  That can happen for a number of reasons as we have seen during this pandemic. For example:

  • The work they were performing is complete and there is no longer work to perform.
  • The agency has been given permission to perform work that was not originally to be completed during the initial POC.

My non-state employer has declared a state of emergency. Does that give them the right to change our contract and working conditions?

Unless the contract specifically states otherwise, non-state public employers in Pennsylvania do not have the right to change the contract due to a state of emergency. Some changes can be made to working conditions in reaction to the health crisis, but they cannot violate the contract. Employers are still obligated to adhere to contracts and negotiate with the union over any changes. It is strongly encouraged that impact bargaining take place to proactively address concerns and discuss anticipated effects of this crisis on the workplace and employees. The goal of this kind of bargaining would be to reach a side letter or interim agreement to specifically address issues related to this crisis.

I have received paperwork from L&I with contact information containing an email address for Employer’s Edge. Is this a legitimate document?

Yes. We verified with the Commonwealth that this is a 3rd party provider for PennDOT unemployment compensation claims.  If you receive documentation that you are not sure about, you should contact the L&I UC Service Center.

Why when my job was always non-essential is it now essential?

Normally paid office closures are for brief periods of time, like a snowstorm.  Because this closure is for an extended period of time, there will be some functions of the Commonwealth that will need to be carried out. Certain jobs have become more crucial than usual due to the extenuating circumstances we are currently under.

Can I be recalled to work even though I have not been working during the shut down?

Yes. As the Governor reopens more businesses and Commonwealth functions, work may become available to you and you may receive a call to return to work. The return to work could be either to physically report to work or to telework, or a combination of both.

If I am mandated to work will I receive hazard pay?

AFSCME Council 13 plans to impact bargain with the Commonwealth as soon as we can.  This is something that will have to be negotiated with them. This should also be negotiated at the non-state level if it’s not already part of the contract.

I received a call to work at a local food bank from PennDOT/Agriculture and AFSCME. Why did I receive a call to work at a food bank?

AFSCME has partnered with the Commonwealth to bring employees back to work at several food banks across the state where there is a great need and a shortage of help. This is strictly on a volunteer basis. We entered into the agreement because PennDOT has the greatest amount of employees who are unable to work or telework. If you volunteer to work, you will be paid your regular rate of pay and work a two week rotation. The hours of work and needs vary from food bank to food bank. For Agriculture, this currently only affects the Agriculture employees who work at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.

Is our contract still valid during a state of emergency?

YES!

What are the chances of furloughs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?

There is a chance of furloughs if the commonwealth remains closed for too long and revenue declines. Council 13 will do everything in its power to shield represented employees from furloughs, and if it comes to that, we will work to mitigate the impact on represented employees.

If I am furloughed, can I receive unemployment compensation?

Yes and there is no longer a waiting period to do so.

If I am furloughed, how would it impact my insurance benefits?

A Commonwealth employee’s health benefits end at 11:59 p.m. on the effective date of their furlough.  They would then be offered COBRA. COBRA allows for your health benefits to be retained at a cost to you for up to 18 months following your furlough.

Can management rescind my already approved vacation?

It is possible during this state of emergency that a previously approved vacation may be cancelled.

If someone is sent home due to a fever what kind of leave would they be able to take?

At this time, they would take available sick leave.

If I’m a Commonwealth employee teleworking and I become ill, do I have to use sick leave?

If you are unable to telework due to your illness, you would have to take available sick leave. For non-state employees, check with your staff representative or call the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

If I have an auto-immune disease, am I mandated to work or can I take some form of leave?

The Commonwealth agencies have been working with employees with underlying conditions who may be at a higher risk.

Should we have to provide our own supplies for personal protection?

No. Employers should provide personal protection supplies. However, if the employer has failed to do so, employees should take precautions to protect themselves and others. The employees should also contact their Staff Representative so that the union can investigate the situation.

How are our benefits (insurance, pension, seniority, etc.) treated while we are off?

If you are not reporting to a worksite nor teleworking and you are in a paid status, there will be no interruption to your benefits. If you are in an unpaid status, please check your union contract or call Council 13’s Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Agency Specific Questions – Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

PASSHE

Why are custodial and maintenance employees being made essential at this time?

Custodial and Maintenance employees on all campuses should be working skeleton crews. Employees should also be rotating shifts and days off.

Transportation

How do we social distance? Sometimes there isn’t enough parking or space to work within the guidelines.

If you are unable to perform your work in a safe manner, you should immediately address your concerns with your supervisor and ask that they make it safe for you to perform the work.

Shouldn’t our locations have proper stations to wash our hands properly?

Yes, if they do not, you should contact your local officer and/or staff representative or call the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Why are we performing jobs where social distancing is impossible?

Please contact your local officer and/or staff representative with specifics or call the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Should we rotate the skeleton crews to make it fair for all the workers that are on those rosters?

These types of agreements are being handled by each District Council. Please contact your staff representative if you have any questions or call the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Corrections

If clerical have the ability to do their work from home, why are they mandated to work in the facility?

Corrections is looking to change employees’ shifts in an effort to practice better social distancing.  If you feel that you were inappropriately deemed essential, please call the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Parole and Probation

Staff are being told they can no longer work in pairs. Why?

In an effort to maintain the health of agents in this current environment, social distancing is highly necessary. All agents are provided a vehicle. If agents need to work as a team, they should drive their own cars if possible. No planned arrest should occur without DD approval.

Staff are to check-in with Parolees in rehabilitation centers, but the centers’ directors won’t let them in. What should we do?

If an agent is not allowed to see the parolee at a rehabilitation center because they are denied by the center staff, they should immediately contact their supervisor.

Can we eliminate all non-essential home visits?

The Commonwealth has reduced all contacts in the first two phases or their COVID-19 plan to new releases, those they plan to arrest, sex offenders, mental health and AOD, and positive urine last 60 days to one face to face contact. This contact should be at the prescribed 6 to 10 feet. Staff should wear their personal protective equipment for all face to face contact. Medium, low, admin, and collateral are electronic contact only. Staff should make sure that they have a good phone number with the first group of offenders, also establish if the offender has Skype or FaceTime capability and to establish a reliable contact in the community. Management anticipates reducing contacts as this situation gets worse to electronic contacts and face to face only when necessary.

We do not have enough sanitizing supplies, what should we do?

Two weeks ago, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, masks and gloves were ordered. Many offices had ample supplies at the time the order was placed. They understand that supplies are running low. Recently staff have been provided a spray bottle with solution that disinfects against COVID-19. They are anticipating additional supplies this week.

DHS (Clerical)

DHS was deemed essential on 3/17/20. How was this possible?

Sec. Miller determined that her agency needed to be essential to help the state maintain essential services during this crisis. We were able to negotiate a 2×2 schedule in OIM offices with 50 employees or more. We continue to work on getting employers to allow employees to telework as well as looking at moving employees to other worksites to practice better social distancing.

Why is DHS “now” declaring our services essential when we’ve had crises in the past and stayed non-essential?

What is happening now is unprecedented and is taking place over an extended and unknown period of time.

How does Commonwealth of Pennsylvania expect workers to practice social distancing in such small spaces, especially during closing time and break periods?

You should practice social distancing in these situations the same as if you were out in the public.

DHS (Hospitals)

Do we have to be provided with the proper personal protection equipment?

Employees should be provided with the proper personal protection equipment and the employer should be following CDC and Department of Health guidelines with cleaning procedures. If these things are not being done, they should contact the local leadership and/or their staff representative or call the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Can our employer not follow proper cleaning procedures at this time?

No.  If that’s happening, you should call your staff representative or the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

Should we have to provide our own personal protection?

No, but if the employer is failing to do so, employees should take every precaution, including providing their own protection until the employer corrects the situation. If this is happening at your workplace, call your staff representative or the Member Resource Center at 1-800-5-AFSCME.

If a room has a suspected case, can they mandate us to enter the room without proper personal protection?

No one should enter an infected area without proper equipment. If the area is infected and they don’t receive the proper equipment, they should just say they feel unsafe entering that area.

Could we be mandated to shelter in place at our job?

At this time, no 24-hour operation is requiring employees to stay on the property and not go home. The employer would have to notify the union if they were thinking of making that decision.