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Chai Suthammanont

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued its silent spread in the spring of 2020, infections rose across Virginia, breaking 1,000 a day, with deaths climbing to as many as 35 a day. 

Despite Virginia’s stay-at-home order issued in late March, many essential workers, including Chai Suthammanont, a kitchen staff worker at a child care facility on Marine Corps Base Quantico, had little choice but to show up for work. 

Suthammanont was exposed to COVID-19, “likely in the tight kitchen space he shared with additional staff,” according to a release from the office of Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat. And in May 2020 he died from coronavirus-related complications.

“Confusion and uncertainty regarding best practices and agency policies, as well as a general lack of communication with federal workforce staff, likely contributed to his death,” Warner’s release said.

Suthammanont’s death has prompted Warner, along with Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), to introduce legislation to promote federal worker safety, ensuring that federal employees and their families are well-informed about COVID-19 protective measures in the workplace. The proposal would require federal agencies to publish and communicate COVID-19 safety plans, increasing agency transparency around critical safeguards. 

Warner said civil servants should not have to sacrifice their lives to serve their country.

“The Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act will help ensure that federal agencies have workplace safety plans in place to protect public servants as they continue to provide essential government services and assistance,” Warner said. “This bill will also set an important precedent for increased transparency so that agencies are better prepared to publish and disseminate safety plans in a future emergency.”

Kaine said he is proud to sponsor the legislation to keep employees and their families informed and safe. 

“No one should have to fear for their life or safety while working, especially during this pandemic,” Kaine added. “We must ensure that every federal workplace implements comprehensive plans to protect federal workers.” 

According to the release, the legislation would require any safety plan disseminated by a federal agency to include:  

  • Procedures for testing, contact-tracing and vaccine administration for employees, along with other mitigation efforts, including cleaning protocols, implementation of occupancy limits, and efforts to ensure proper mask-wearing, social distancing and individual hygiene at worksites.

  • Efforts to protect employees who travel for their official duties or who work outside of federal office buildings.

  • Safety and health requirements for visitors to federal facilities.

  • Contingency options and workplace flexibilities for those at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, or who live in a household with individuals at high risk.

  • Protocols for vaccination, including leave policies for individuals who experience severe side-effects as a result of vaccination.

  • Efforts to ensure continuity of agency operations, including contingency plans should there be a surge in coronavirus cases.

  • Inspector General hotline information that employees can use to report instances when agencies do not follow the plan.

Paul Lara covers the military beat. Reach him at plara@insidenova.com

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