Health

Here’s the plan for sending federal employees back into the office

Plans to return federal employees to the office amid the coronavirus pandemic will be based on public health conditions in the states where an agency has operations, according to a memo to agency heads jointly released April 20 by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget.

In guidance, acting OMB Director Russ Vought and acting OPM Director Michael Rigas said agency leaders can delegate “certain” operational and personnel decisions to component- or bureau-level leaders.

The two leaders also “encouraged” agency heads to continue to maximize telework flexibility to all telework-eligible employees that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed high risk for contracting the novel coronavirus.

“Given the diversity of Federal workforce missions, geographic locations and the needs of individuals within the workforce itself, this transition will require continued diligence and flexibility from Federal agencies and the Federal workforce,” the memo read.

OMB and OPM wrote in the memo that the starting point for lifting mandatory telework should start with state and regional assessments of the COVID-19 pandemic in that area, but also should consider the operating status of schools and day cares, public transportation and parking availability, facility requirements, and missions, according to the guidance. Working from home is particularly challenging for families with school-age children amid school districts across the country canceling in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year.

The plan for resuming normal operations will follow a three-phrase approach to lifting shelter-in-place orders across the United States, as suggested to governors by President Donald Trump late last week.

In each of the three phases, restrictions on citizens and businesses are gradually lifted based on a set of public health criteria recommended to the White House by public health professionals. A state will move on to the next phase if it meets the criteria every two weeks.

Agencies are also authorized to “consider new work arrangements for the immediate future to support resumption of normal activities," according to the memo.

“As an example, agencies may create cohorts or teams within an office and place the cohort or team on alternating schedules of five days in the office and 15 days of telework per month,” the memo read. “Adoption of alternative arrangements such as rotating cohorts may enable additional flexibility for employees to resume normal operations, regardless of phasing status, while maintaining social distancing and reducing contact among work units.”

According to the guidance, agencies are “expected" to continue the maximum telework policy for vulnerable populations “until a duty station is back at normal operating status." Those instructions could also be applied to an employee who lives or cares for individuals who are vulnerable.

When employees do return to the workplace, employees “may” wear a face covering, and agencies can issue face masks or approved coverings, the memo read.

The joint memo also told agency leaders that they must prioritize the reopening of some facilities over others, specifically medical centers and offices that dole out loans.

“Agencies must prioritize capacity building for those services that are the most public-facing as well as those critical to implementing COVID-19 response efforts to help the nation’s recovery,” the memo read.

The federal workforce has largely been working from home for about a month as the government continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. According to the CDC, there are 746,000 COVID-19 cases and 39,000 deaths related to the outbreak in the United States.

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