Federal Oversight

Protecting employees among top government challenges during pandemic

Federal inspectors general have closely monitored the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and many are concerned about their agencies’ ability to keep employees — both essential and those returning to the office — save from potential spread.

According to a report issued by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which was created under coronavirus relief legislation to promote transparency in the government’s response to the pandemic, most agencies are facing four primary challenges:

  1. Financial management of coronavirus spending
  2. Grant and loan management
  3. IT security and management
  4. Protecting health and safety while maintaining effective operations

“Concerns ranged from difficulty procuring adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer for employees who work in public-facing jobs, to allowing public access to federal lands, to protecting employees who work in countries with inadequate local health care systems,” the report reads.

Agencies have implemented an independent and phased approach to reopening, where groups of employees are brought back over a length of time determined by the current severity of coronavirus in each state.

But that also means that the federal government has a lot of property to worry about when instituting safety precautions and ensuring proper sanitation.

“GSA constructs and manages federal buildings and leases space in those buildings to federal agencies. According to the GSA OIG, as of May 7, 2020, 963 GSA owned or leased facilities reported positive or presumed COVID-19 cases. In each instance, GSA’s Public Buildings Service must be able to identify and track the virus infection, notify building occupants and visitors of potential exposure, and work with contractors to ensure that the space is cleaned and disinfected in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” the report reads.

GSA manages over 9,600 facilities in total, meaning that 10 percent of those facilities have confirmed or suspected COVID-19 exposure.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security also manage prison and detention facilities, where close quarters can increase the chances of exposure and put employees and inmates at risk.

“Although only DHS OIG and DOJ OIG reported this specific concern, the challenge potentially impacts more than 200,000 inmates in federal prisons and contract facilities, detainees awaiting federal trial or sentencing decisions, and immigration detainees in DHS custody. As a result, the potential magnitude of this concern alone warrants mention,” the report reads.

“According to the DHS OIG, numerous reports and studies establish that DHS struggled to ensure proper medical and mental health care in immigration detention centers even before the pandemic. DHS OIG stated that the agency’s decentralized system of contractors used to manage and staff detention facilities, lack of standardized procedures and deficiencies in the agency’s pandemic preparedness increased the likelihood that detainees and staff might not have sufficient PPE or access to effective treatment to minimize the spread of the virus. DOJ OIG identified similar concerns in protecting inmates and detainees housed in [Bureau of Prisons] institutions, BOP contract facilities, and U.S. Marshals Service detention centers, as well as the staff and contractors who work there.”

Agencies are also struggling to complete their missions while ensuring worker safety. Employees that provide essential services and oversight are at a heightened risk in some instances where agency mission places them in centers of pandemic activity.

Federal medical services, such as those provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs or attached to Medicare and Medicaid programs are also at an increased risk to COVID-19 exposure.

“Meat processing plants have become virus ‘hotspots’ as the pandemic has progressed, generating concerns about employee safety in these facilities and security of the food production supply chain. The USDA OIG has highlighted the role of the Food Safety and Inspection Service in ensuring the safety of commercial meat, poultry, and processed egg products,” the report reads.

“The [U.S. Postal Service] OIG also cited the need to maintain in-person operations to perform essential functions. According to the USPS OIG, the Postal Service is facing labor shortages as employees get sick, fear getting sick or need to take time off to provide dependent care, which potentially could lead to delays in mail processing and delivery. USPS OIG stated that over a thousand postal employees have tested positive for the virus coupled with numerous postal employee deaths.”

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