Calls for Congressional investigation over whistleblower retaliation
By TIM ROWDEN
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is calling for the “immediate transfer” of more than 2,000 federal employees at the multiagency Goodfellow Federal Center in St. Louis, a complex with a history of hazardous materials mismanagement, including lead and asbestos.
AFGE estimates there are 2,400 employees in the complex, which houses offices of the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Agriculture Department and the General Services Administration (GSA).
AFGE also is calling for a Congressional investigation over what the union describes as whistleblower retaliation, made evident by internal GSA documents in which management calls for an agency whistleblower to: “receive thorough training, coaching and counseling, for as long as necessary, with the most senior HR representative within the region in attendance, to allow for him to completely understand… the importance of being a team member….
“Whistleblower harassment and retaliation should never be tolerated, but GSA management appears to be recommending just that,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.
CALL FOR INVESTIGATION
AFGE is demanding multiple actions to address the situation, including:
- Congressional investigations and possible legal actions to hold all responsible parties accountable
- Notifying all current and former employees about the hazards to which they were exposed
- Allowing employees currently working at the center to relocate or work remotely
- Health care screenings for all current and former employees, workers compensation as appropriate, and back pay for working in a hazardous environment
- A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study into the root causes for the failure to take remedial action
- An independent study into whether there are increased incidences of cancer, death, or other health concerns among employees who have worked at the center
HAZARDS IDENTIFIED BY OSHA IN 2016
The situation at the Goodfellow center stems from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report from July 2016, in which inspectors documented several “serious” instances of unsafe working conditions, as well as a follow-up report last March from GSA’s Office of Inspector General.
Repeated testing over the last three years has revealed the building, which dates back to 1941, has traces of 83 hazardous substances potentially harmful to the health of employees who come in contact with them.
GSA conducted its own analysis in November 2016 and found lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals in the ventilation system.
OVER $1.9 MILLION IN DUPLICATIVE TESTING
An air sample analysis performed since then showed that, at the time of the sampling, asbestos and lead were no longer in the air at the facility, but the union says GSA failed to follow OSHA’s recommendation to prevent contaminants from migrating from building basements and tunnels into upstairs offices or show that it has addressed the other 81 hazardous substances in the building.
According to a March 2019 report issued by the GSA Office of Inspector General, GSA’s Public Building Service (PBS) spent over $1.9 million on duplicative environmental sampling and analysis confirming hazards they already knew to be present but “failed to comprehensively address the deficiencies” or properly inform employees of the potential health risks.
The report recommended that PBS prevent the exposure of occupants to hazardous substances, post safety plans where appropriate, maintain a complete repository of all environmental studies, ensure that all such studies are distributed to occupants of the building and take publicly-disclosed action to respond to health and safety studies done at regional facilities.
In a May 24 letter to U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), whose district includes the Goodfellow center, AFGE said: “GSA took away each employee’s right to protect his or her health by ensuring they were not informed of the contamination in the workspace.
“Those hazards have not been eliminated. Employees are still being asked to believe GSA is properly managing the contaminations when they have been chided by their own Inspector General three times in the past nine years for not having an environmental program that protects the safety of their tenants,” the letter states.
The same GSA managers who have failed to act at Goodfellow, AFGE notes, also were admonished by the agency’s Inspector General in 2010 for endangering the health and safety of employees at the Bannister Federal Complex in Kansas City, Mo., where one employee died in 2006.
“GSA has repeatedly shown over the past 20 years that they do not care about [the] safety and health of federal employees,” AFGE’s letter to Clay said.
A whistleblower disclosure AFGE filed with the Office of Special Counsel notes that agency management failed to take proper steps to mitigate known hazards, exposed thousands of employees and possibly their families, and failed to provide proper notification. Reports note that one area of contamination was a child care center.
Signing the letter to Clay were AFGE 9th District National Vice President Michael Kelly and the presidents of four AFGE locals representing federal employees at the Goodfellow Center, including employees of the United States Department of Agriculture, Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs.
Following the March 2019 Inspector General’s report, GSA established an online reading room and implemented controls to prevent employees from entering hazardous portions of the facility, but AFGE, in its letter to Clay, says the dangers are not limited to the portions of the building with restricted access.
“We also believe employees are still being exposed through regular roof leaks, which continue to bring down ceiling tiles — sometimes directly onto employees’ heads,” the letter said.
Clay’s Communications Director Steven Engelhardt said the Congressman was “in discussion with GSA” about the situation.
AWARE OF HEALTH RISKS FOR DECADES
PBS has been aware of significant environmental contamination at the Goodfellow complex for decades. The Goodfellow complex is situated on a 62.5-acre, 23 building campus comprised of buildings that were constructed in 1941 by the Department of Defense and were used as an Army Small Arms Munitions Plant during World War II. In 1966, ownership and operation of the complex was transferred from the Army to GSA, which converted the buildings to office space. The complex was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Federal Facility Hazardous Waste Compliance Docket in 1988.
However, according to GSA’s own Office of Inspector General’s report, despite decades-long knowledge of the conditions at the complex, PBS failed to take appropriate action to protect tenants, contractors, and visitors from hazards at the Goodfellow complex or inform them of their exposure to toxic substances.
“We have people who have had health issues and now we’re seeing where these issues may have come from all these years,” said Wil Grant, president of AFGE Local 3354 (Department of Agriculture), which represents 1,500 members working at the complex. “Now we’re seeing GSA has exposed themselves, with their own reporting, to how much risk they have exposed us to all these years.”
‘GET THE EMPLOYEES OUT OF THERE’
Amy O’Rourke, president of AFGE Local 1336 (Social Security Administration) said Local 1336 filed a grievance with Social Security regarding conditions in the building and GSA’s lack of action in 2016, but Kathleen Scully-Hayes, associate chief administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, determined that no additional action was needed.
“We have employees with multitudes of health problems,” said O’Rourke, whose members work in Building 110 at the Goodfellow Center.
“We’ve got some people with respiratory issues, fertility issues, brain bleeds, cancers of various forms. When you are exposed to lead dust over the years and those types of materials, it’s going to manifest differently depending on the individual. I cannot prove causation, but I can’t rule it out either.
“Our immediate ask is to get the employees out of there,” O’Rourke said.
Trump administration plan to merge OPM with GSA should give Congress pause
Washington – The Trump administration is planning to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management, the federal agency that oversees the federal government’s civil service, and divide its functions among the Department of Defense (DOD), General Services Administration (GSA) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
GSA could soon take over OPM’s current human resources obligations.
But the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which is calling out GSA’s failure to adequately respond or inform employees of hazardous materials contamination at the Goodfellow Federal Center in St. Louis and similar problems at GSA’s Bannister Federal Complex in Kansas City, Mo., (See related story on Page 1) says GSA’s repeated failure to uphold its mission and properly protect the well-being of workers and visitors at federal buildings should give Congress pause as it considers the Trump administration’s proposal to make GSA responsible for administering all human resources functions governmentwide.
“GSA is incapable of protecting the health and safety of employees working in federal buildings, yet somehow the Trump administration thinks this agency can take on the added responsibility of administering the government’s pay and leave policies and other HR functions,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “Congress must not reward GSA for flouting federal laws and allowing workers to spend years in a toxic workplace.”