Questions Surface About Worker Protections at Border, Airports

A group of 20 congressmen have sent a letter to the White House voicing concerns that U.S. inspectors at the Mexico border are being barred from wearing protective face masks as they monitor people for swine flu -- though other government officials insist there's no official ban on masks.

"What I've learned is that there's a procedure that says primary inspectors at the border are allowed to wear gloves but not allowed to wear protective face masks unless they've observed something after the fact," Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., told ABC News today.

However, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Sean Smith vehemently denied that there is any official restriction on federal employees wearing face masks at points of entry. And federal officials have encouraged employees to make use of any protective gear necessary.

"The Department of Homeland Security has not issued an order saying our employees cannot wear masks," Smith said today. "The health of our employees is of utmost importance to us, and today we are issuing department-wide guidance to our workforce."

This afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano likewise addressed the issue.

"I heard some of those members of Congress, and they just have incorrect information," she said. "There has been no departmental guidance given because we were waiting to assemble the best advice we could from others about what should happen with respect to our own employees. But we're in the process and will be issuing guidance out to our own employees, as will be issued to federal employees, I think, generally, over the next day or two."

For answers to frequently asked questions and information on the latest developments, visit ABC News' special section on the H1N1 virus.

Bilbray's letter reads, "It has been brought to our attention that Customs and Border Protection Officers are currently prohibited from wearing protective masks by a policy of the Department of Homeland Security. ... Many Customs and Border Protection Officers are stressed because they are unable to protect themselves."

The lawmaker's accusation that inspectors are "not given the free choice to wear the protective masks and protect their health" comes as a government employees' union says that it is hearing similar complaints from airport workers about supervisors restricting use of face masks.

"This is happening all over," said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees. "They're not being given masks. They're asking for them, and they're being told no."

Ryan said that the union is getting scattered reports of TSA problems in airports, including Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Ryan said workers there are told they cannot wear masks, either because the airports don't have them or because they don't want to spark panic.

In Houston, TSA employee and union activist Richard Tennison said today that he hasn't been told not to wear a mask, but nonetheless does not have access to one unless he and his co-workers have reason to believe a passenger might be ill.

"They have them there, but they're not releasing them yet, giving the OK to wear them yet," he said.

The 7-year TSA employee said his federal security director has not given the authority to release the masks because the director "didn't want to panic the public."

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