Federal agencies have begun to bring employees back into the office as states and localities relax social distancing procedures to combat the spread of COVID-19. But some members of Congress have expressed concern that the federal government as a whole has not adequately set measures to ensure that the feds that do return to the office will be safe.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., wrote letters to 24 agency inspectors general June 15, asking that they investigate their agencies’ reopening and employee safety measures and report such findings to the House Subcommittee on Government Operations.
“The Subcommittee asks that you review whether your department and its managers are employing best practices and existing guidance when deciding whether or when to require federal employees and contractors to return to federal office buildings,” Connolly wrote.
“The health and safety of federal employees is of paramount concern. We need to ensure that administration officials are cautious and prudent when requiring federal employees and contractors to return to federal office buildings.”
The letter comes after Connolly expressed dissatisfaction with the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget’s response to subcommittee requests that the agencies provide officials to testify on the governmentwide plans for returning federal employees to the office safely.
The acting directors of both agencies sent a letter to the committee June 2 in response to that initial request, outlining the steps the administration had taken to prepare for and address the pandemic, but did not commit to appearing in testimony.
The letter focused largely on six areas of action the administration had taken to address coronavirus: pre-COVID management reforms under the President’s Management Agenda; modernization of IT to enhance online services and remote work; support for expanding telework for both feds and contractors; COVID-specific hiring initiatives; spending transparency efforts; and previous guidance documents the agencies had released for agency closure and return-to-work efforts.
“We will continue to work with agencies and answer any questions they might have in order to help them make the best decisions possible. At the same time, we will continue to protect the health and safety of the nation’s largest workforce so that, in its ongoing service to the American people, it can surmount this unprecedented challenge,” acting OPM Director Michael Rigas and acting OMB Director Russell Vought wrote.
But as Connolly noted in his June 15 letter, that response did not address requested information about personal protective equipment stores or plans to test and quarantine employees that have potentially been exposed to the virus.
According to guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employers should consider implementing health checks on employees returning to the office; conduct a thorough hazard assessment of the workplace for any vectors of exposure and determine the PPE needed to protect against them; provide such PPE at no cost to workers; require employees to wear cloth face coverings in non-hazardous situations; have planned procedures for dealing with employees that become sick in the workplace; and plan to section off and disinfect areas that were used by sick employees.
Connolly’s letter requested that the IG’s assessment plans include an evaluation of whether plans to return federal employees to the office are based on evidence and research.
OPM and OMB guidance has instructed agencies to open offices in line with state reopening plans as some offices may be in locations that have much higher or much lower case numbers than the national average.
Most states are currently in the middle of reopening efforts, with some businesses and activities allowed to open, while those more at risk of spreading the virus remain closed.
Meanwhile, according to CDC data, the number of new cases in the U.S. has fluctuated, with numbers reaching between 14,500 and 30,000 over the past two weeks. On its worst day, April 6, the U.S. added over 43,000 new cases.
On top of monitoring the rationale for reopening, Connolly’s letter calls on IGs to track the availability of resources like PPE and coronavirus tests, assess department protocols for an employee that tests positive, evaluate collaboration with other agencies like the CDC and track metrics, such as the number of employees who contract the virus, to “facilitate a thorough assessment of department policies and actions at this critical juncture.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.