Federal law enforcement agents on the southern border expect Border Patrol personnel to get hit by the coronavirus but say they have not been briefed on how the agency will continue its national security operations and whether that includes their having to report to work sick.
Five Border Patrol agents who work in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California told theWashington Examinerthat for weeks, the agency’s Washington and regional headquarters have done little to explain how they should protect themselves on the job beyond basic personal protective equipment.
Agents fear they are at risk for COVID-19 from the tens of thousands of crossers they arrest each month. One agent said he took into custody people from Mexico City who told them coronavirus was rampant there, and that’s why they fled.
Last week, the agency’s social media pages began sharing pictures and videos of agents and people arrested wearing masks and gloves with reassurances that the job was not significantly affected by the coronavirus, even as the Trump administration made the unprecedented move to restrict all nonessential travel at land borders.
“The management is sort of covering their ass, trying to implement some things that might make them say, ‘Look, I tried,’” said an agent. “And then that’s about it. I think they’re having their [regional] personnel telework, some of them. And then we’re still having musters.”
Musters are meetings in which a dozen or several dozen agents gather in a small area to talk before a shift starts. Two additional agents complained that the group meetings were still taking place despite these being prime venues for spreading the virus.
When, not if, you get it
“They’re sending us all out with gloves and masks saying, ‘If you just stay six feet away, you won’t get it,” one agent said. “What they’re trying to do is give Border Patrol agents the same rules they’ve given the public. They know that they can’t come out and say, ‘We’re telling all our agents and staffers to stay six feet away from each other, but don’t worry. We’re out there hunting down bad guys. We’re just doing it from six feet away now.’”
The agent said he is bracing for the onset of symptoms as are his coworkers: “It’s a matter of when, not if.”
This source said he was aware of another agent who was out a couple days this month with a fever but returned to work the same week as being out. Four agents said they do not know what to do if they have been exposed to someone who is sick.
“There’s been no guidance in terms of whether to use sick or admin leave,” said one agent. “If you’re gonna make me stay home for 14 days, are you gonna give me admin leave or do I have to use my own sick leave?”
Agents in the last few days were given guidance explaining when with respect to COVID-19 — including during the process of determining whether they have it — they could use admin leave, which is also referred to as safety leave, so they do not have to use vacation or annual accrued time and sick leave. In most cases, they are not allowed to use admin leave and in some cases, not even sick leave.
No workman’s comp for the sick
Two agents cited emails they received that said they will only receive workman’s compensation if they are sick enough that it mandates getting tested, the test comes back positive, and they can prove they got the virus while working.
“We have to prove that we got it at work,” said an agent who inspects hundreds and sometimes more than 1,000 vehicles per shift at a Border Patrol highway checkpoint. “I don’t go the gym or restaurants and I’m stuck at home with my girlfriend so I don’t know how else I would get it. The only thing I can think of is you would have to pull the [vehicle license] plate readers and run all those plates to see who has it, which they’re not going to do.”
However, if other agents who work alongside an agent who has tested positive for coronavirus get sick, they would be eligible for workman’s compensation. “But I’m the guy hung out to dry because I’m patient zero. But all the other guys get paid for it,” another agent said.
Agents themselves could become COVID-19 ‘importers’
If agents at each of the 73 stations on the southern border start getting sick but are pressured not to stay home because staffing is already low, it could put healthy agents at risk, one man said.
“The Border Patrol is in this weird conundrum of, ‘We know our agents are gonna get sick, but our agents have to go home every day,” the agent said. “The agents themselves could become the importer of the disease into the country.”
The same agent said he “might as well sleep in a parking lot” rather than going home to his family and risk bringing it home to them.
“It is somewhat of a concern for some of us, especially for me because my kids have asthma,” said another agent.
A national security nightmare
“‘If you’re sick, take care of yourself.’ They’re saying that now, and then coronavirus comes in and wipes out all the Border Patrol, and we’re mustering no one, then all of a sudden it’s a national security concern,” an agent said. “They’re gonna get to a point — if it’s bad as they’re making it sound and it’s as contagious — then all of the Border Patrol agents are gonna get this. What do you do? It’s a civilian service. We’re not military. They can’t order us to stay in one place … They’ll probably end up, ‘You have to come to work because it’s national security. Just come to work sick, sorry,” said the agent, adding they could set up campers or house agents inside stations.
One agent said the United States was in a “unique” position compared to other countries that can deploy military to carry out law enforcement at its borders, but the U.S. was limited in its capacity. Still, not all agents are convinced the coronavirus will be a major issue.
“Our guys deal with it. You just want to have a 20-year career and the goal is to be able to retire — probably not get shot, not get [tuberculosis],” he said. “Coronavirus is just sort of like the flu — it’s shortness of breath. OK. Copy that. But really, I just don’t want to get TB. I don’t want to take lice home tonight.”