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Swine flu follies at Social Security Administration

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 5:06 p.m. ET

The union representing thousands of Social Security Administration employees has reacted angrily to an official's recent assertion that H1N1 flu is not a serious communicable disease.

Celine Wilson, SSA's chief negotiator with the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals AFGE, told labor leaders that H1N1 "is not a serious communicable disease," according to an account of the meeting described in a letter sent Wednesday from union President Witold Skwierczynski to SSA Administrator Michael J. Astrue.

At issue is any potential contact between SSA employees and customers at the 1,300 SSA service locations nationwide. The agency already provide tissues, hand sanitizers and face masks for employees who want them.

Union leaders asked for a meeting with officials in late October requesting that the agency add H1N1 to a list of serious communicable diseases covered by agency protocols regarding an employee's contact with sick customers. Employees are supposed to stop any interview with a customer who shows symptoms and refer them to a manager, Skwierczynski said. The current contract includes diseases such as tuberculosis, but not H1N1.

Wilson would not comment on the letter when reached by telephone, and did not confirm or deny making the statement. An SSA spokesman, Mark Hinkle, also did not confirm or deny Wilson's statement, but instead said Skwierczynski "continues to fabricate reports for media attention on this important public health issue."

"Social Security had worked long and hard on H1N1 policies before the union ever asked to discuss it," Hinkle said. "Our policies meet or exceed everything Health and Human Services is recommending, and we believe they are in the best interest of the public and our employees.”

Asked for further clarification, Hinkle said, "We recognize that H1N1 is a contagious disease that can be serious, and we are taking all recommended action."

Wilson's alleged statement is at odds with the opinion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which describes H1N1 as a communicable disease that "is spreading from person-to-person worldwide." President Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency last month and demand for the H1N1 vaccine has forced federal officials to admit that it may not be widely available until December or January.

"It is obvious that SSA’s refusal to acknowledge that swine flu is a serious communicable disease is based on the reluctance of the agency to allow employees to refer interviews to management when those being interviewed display signs of swine flu," Skwierczynski said in his letter.

SSA and AFGE have clashed for years over several personnel issues and the union has joined other federal workers groups in calling for Astrue's ouster.

Unions raised similar concerns about H1N1 and federal employees last Spring, when the Homeland Security Department delayed issuing guidelines about how to handle H1N1 victims along the U.S.-Mexico border.

By Ed O'Keefe  | November 5, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Health Care, Workplace Issues  
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