Federal agencies have, on the whole, been slow to issue guidance and take appropriate actions in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, according to one federal employee union.
National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon told reporters on a March 12 call that despite persistent efforts on their part to meet with agencies and assess preparedness plans, a large number have provided only the bare minimum response to their employees.
“We offered our assistance, and we gave the agencies time and space to get it done, but I’m sorry to say that, today, the overall government efforts to protect federal employees have fallen far short,” said Reardon.
“Communication has been sorely lacking. We asked all of our agencies to provide their pandemic plans or any other guidance they had for employees so that we could help share the information with federal workers. Some agencies have been responsive. Some have not. The majority of our chapter leaders say that they their agencies have only provided general information from the [Centers for Disease Control] or [Office of Personnel Management] and nothing specific. And nothing about what will happen when one of their coworkers contracts COVID-19.”
The union is calling on agencies to prioritize sending employees home to telework where they can and to institute additional safety measures, like social distancing, for employees that absolutely must come to the office.
“This could include adjusting work schedules so every other cubicle or desk is filled. They can stop all in-person meetings and switch to teleconference or web-based meetings. This takes some work on the part of management, but the fact is that is their job,” said Reardon.
OPM has encouraged agencies to include telework in their continuity of operations plans, but has largely left it up to the discretion of those agencies to approve telework requests or to mandate that employees at a certain location remain at home.
The Securities and Exchange Commission recently sent a majority of its headquarters staff home, after one employee notified the agency that they had begun displaying symptoms of the disease and were scheduled to be tested.
Reardon lauded such behavior, but noted that many agencies are doing just the opposite at the moment.
“Just yesterday we received reports from inside [the Department of Health and Human Services] that employees with underlying conditions are having their telework requests denied,” said Reardon.
“At this point, our suggestions have in large measure been met with responses that are as follows: it’s under consideration or it’s being discussed. There has not been to this point, so far as I can tell anyway, a lot that has actually been done to deal with workplace flexibilities.”
According to Reardon, some IRS offices have not provided sufficient cleaning supplies and gloves for employees working with mailed tax documents, and Customs and Border Protection employees were not notified by the Centers for Disease Control whether they came into contact with asymptomatic individuals that later tested positive for coronavirus.
Though some agencies have issued plans for coronavirus response and planned for network testing days to ensure that their systems have the capacity to deal with a large number of teleworking employees, Reardon noted that it is past time for planning and federal agencies, as the largest employer in the United States, have the responsibility to proactively take protective steps for their employees, including the consideration of drastic action.
“We are probably at the time when it needs to be carefully considered, discussing whether the tax filing deadline needs to be extended,” said Reardon.
“Things don’t look good. Let’s as a country own that; let’s try to get out in front of it as much as we can; let’s protect our federal employees, nation and taxpayers; and let’s attack this thing the way that we, as Americans, typically attack problems.”
President Donald Trump announced March 11 that he planned to place restrictions on travel between the United States and Europe as a means of reducing the spread of the illness, and many local governments and school districts have canceled classes and events as well.
But Reardon said that he had not been given an indication by OPM or individual agencies of where the breaking point would be to send employees home on mandatory telework.
“Unfortunately, I suspect that, like it or not, we are probably getting close to something like that in our country,” said Reardon.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.