Management

Return to work plans ‘endanger’ federal workers, senators say

Standing federal guidance on reopening agencies across the U.S. is “endangering the health and safety of federal workers,” and should be replaced, according to four Democratic senators.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., wrote to leadership at the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management July 9 to express opposition to current COVID-19 guidance that has given the green light for many federal agencies to begin returning employees to their worksites.

“The current guidance is encouraging agencies to end maximum telework prematurely. COVID-19 is a deadly threat to anyone — and anyone can carry the virus and transmit it to others — but the current OPM/OMB guidance only supports sustained maximum telework throughout the pandemic for certain workers deemed to be high risk,” the senators wrote.

“Further, the guidance sometimes conflicts with direction from other members of the Trump Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread.”

Agencies began transitioning large groups of federal employees to mandatory telework in March, with some agencies managing to place nearly the entirety of their workforces on telework or emergency leave.

OMB then issued guidance in April that encouraged agencies to match their reopening plans with the phased reopening for the state in which that agency resides, a policy that was criticized for it’s lack of specificity or metrics for determining when a return to work would be safe.

Agencies across the country have begun returning more “essential” in-person employees to the office, such as efforts at the IRS to return employees to process paper tax returns in advance of the tax filing deadline.

Agencies with a large presence in the Washington, D.C., area, such as the Pentagon, have begun to return groups of employees to the office as well, though new cases in the district and surrounding counties have been on the rise in recent weeks.

“In the National Capital Region, many federal agencies are bringing employees back to the office instead of teleworking, even though the reopening guidelines for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia all urge employers to continue telework as much as possible,” the senators wrote.

“Unlike these federal agencies, governments in Maryland, Virginia and the District continue to utilize liberal telework policies and limited office capacity for public sector workers.”

Federal employee groups have repeatedly criticized governmentwide and agency-specific guidelines for reopening as lacking essential safety measures and forcing largely administrative employees, whose work can be done more easily online, to return to the office.

“The agency’s reopening plan ignores critical considerations required for employees to return to work safely. For instance, the agency has not committed to directly informing employees if someone at their worksite has tested positive for COVID-19, and further indicates that, in the event of a positive COVID-19 test at a worksite, an employee’s contacts will be traced by USDA employees without public health training for only the preceding three days prior to the positive test, contradicting CDC recommendations,” the National Treasury Employees Union recently wrote in a letter to House members about plans at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Additionally, it appears unlikely that the agency has or is providing the necessary equipment and resources to implement even the insufficient plan that they have put forward. For example, the agency has stated that they only expect to provide two to three facemasks per employee for the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis and that these facemasks will only be provided upon employee request. Furthermore, the agency has not established a clear policy addressing individuals in agency buildings that refuse to wear facemasks.”

Both the union and the lawmakers’ letter express concerns over the exposure presented by public transportation, which many employees in the Washington, D.C., area use to get to work each day.

Lawmakers and administration officials have been divided on the posture the federal government should take in reopening, with some calling for agencies to set an example for returning to work, while others worry that such plans ignore safety concerns and pandemic trends.

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