Three of the plaintffs in a new lawsuit against the goverment work at a federal prison. The suit seeks to compel the government to add hazardous duty pay of up to 25 percent of salary to federal employees whose work puts them at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

A new lawsuit seeks to compel the government to add hazardous duty pay of up to 25 percent of salary to potentially 100,000 or more federal employees whose work puts them at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

The suit seeks to have the U.S. Court of Federal Claims order payments retroactive to Jan. 27 and moving forward to employees who “work with or in close proximity to objects, surfaces, and/or individuals infected with COVID-19.”

It names as representative plaintiffs five federal employees working at the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs departments who have been performing such duties and have not received any of the potential pay boosts for facing hazards beyond what is deemed normal for a position.

One, called hazardous duty pay, is a 25 percent increase for white-collar employees under the government’s General Schedule salary system. The other, called environmental differential pay, pays an additional 4 or 8 percent for exposure to certain microorganisms to those under the “wage grade” pay system for blue-collar employees.

The suit, filed Friday, says that the number may include over 100,000 federal employees but that only the government has the information needed to perform a full accounting.

“Each day front-line federal employees willingly risk their health and their families’ health to provide critical services to the American people. It is our hope that the government does right by these employees and pays them the hazardous duty pay they’ve earned,” said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is sponsoring the suit.

The Justice Department declined to comment Monday.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said on March 27 that George Valentine, a member of her team for 20 years, passed away after testing positive for coronavirus. (Video: D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser)

The filing comes amid continued concerns among federal workers and some members of Congress that the government is leaving large numbers of the workers exposed to the virus through shortages of protective equipment and by keeping at the workplace some whose jobs would allow them to telework.

A special funding measure enacted into law last week contains additional funds for agencies to buy more protective equipment, sanitize workspaces and support increased telework.

However, Heidi R. Burakiewicz of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch in the District, the lead attorney on the suit, said that even if more protective equipment is provided, the law requires paying the differentials where safety measures “have not practically eliminated the potential for such personal injury.”

The government should “step up and do the right thing. Take the precautions to protect these employees, first and foremost . . . and start paying these employees for what they’re going through,” she said in a phone interview.

She said that if the court declares a class action, all federal employees who have worked — or will work — in settings of higher risk of exposure would automatically be qualified for any award of back pay. “The statute does not require that you become ill, that you contract the illness, just that you’re exposed to it,” she said.

“We’re not going to get a decision overnight on this case, but I really hope that it brings attention to the right people,” she said. “They need to start paying hazardous duty pay to the employees who are covered by the statute, they need to make sure they get them proper protective equipment and make some common-sense decisions that protect everybody.”

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