Federal agencies should prioritize telework in their continuity of operations plans in the event of a coronavirus outbreak, the Office of Personnel Management informed agency heads March 3.
“If an agency COOP plan is in operation, that plan ‘shall supersede any telework policy,’” OPM Director Dale Cabaniss wrote in the memo.
“Therefore, agencies should immediately review their current COOP plans to ensure that telework has been fully incorporated and that as many employees as possible have been identified as telework employees in the plan, and are telework capable (or ‘telework ready’).”
Some federal agencies have been cutting back on telework programs under the Trump administration, citing the need to improve the efficiency of operations and ensure better interaction of citizens.
Such actions “fly in the face of common sense,” according to National Treasury Employee Union National President Tony Reardon.
“On the one hand, federal agencies repeatedly claim that there is no directive to stop telework. On the other hand federal agencies are cutting back on established telework with little concern or regard for the effect on federal employees,” said Reardon at the union’s annual legislative conference.
“We have an Office of Personnel Management that is promoting telework as a great option, they say, for employees and agencies, including in times of bad weather or emergencies like the coronavirus.”
Though the CDC has listed the health risk from the coronavirus, or COVID-19, as low in the United States at this point, cases of the virus have been reported in Washington state, New York and other U.S. mainland locations.
OPM recommended that agencies require employees who have acute respiratory symptoms and fever, two known markers of coronavirus, to stay home from work until 24 hours after they are fever-free and that agencies remove employees who come into work with such symptoms.
Federal employees that have to travel to high-risk areas are advised to stay home for 14 days after their return to monitor their health for symptoms of the virus.
The memo does not, however, advise agencies to stop travel within the United States, and many federal employees and leaders are slated to speak at massive internationally attended conferences, like South by Southwest, where large numbers of people will gather in confined spaces.
The OPM guidance does not mandate actions of agencies, leaving it up to the individual leadership to determine the course of action in preparing and protecting employees from a potential outbreak.
The majority of federal agencies have yet to release a comprehensive plan in case of outbreak, which, according to Reardon, sends a message to federal employees that they are not a priority.
“We have asked every single agency for their pandemic plans. Once we get those — we’ve got one or two of them, they will be going out today — so that everyone has that, we will be putting that on our website,” said Reardon.
“We are trying to hold the agencies’ feet to the fire so to speak, in making sure they get their plans out..”
According to Reardon, reports of travelers coming into the United States and then being confirmed to have coronavirus raise concerns about Customs and Border Protection officers that interacted with them, and the agency should do more to identify and address such officers.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.