The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s aggressive plans to return employees in the Washington, D.C.-area to in-person work have raised the concerns of employees and members of Congress.

Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., led eight other Virginia, Maryland and D.C. representatives in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue Sept. 2, calling for a pause to any further reopening plans until agency leadership agrees to work with employees on the safest path forward.

“To date, we have heard from employees, including the nearly 400 employees of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service National Office, who are very concerned that the agency is pursuing a rushed and flawed plan that will require employees to return to their offices without sufficient safety protocols in place and without sufficient certainty being provided to the employees who will be impacted,” the members of Congress wrote.

“In light of these concerns and the troubling information that we have received about the agency’s reopening plans to date, we ask that the agency pause its current, dangerous reopening plans and work with employees to reach a clear and science-driven agreement that puts their safety first.”

The letter notes that the reopening plan does not include strategies to directly notify employees of a positive COVID-19 test at their worksite or conduct temperature checks and on-demand tests. The agency’s contact tracing plan also deviates from Centers for Disease Control guidance.

According to the USDA National Capital Region reopening playbook, Phase 3 reopening involved up to 100 percent of employees and contractors returning to the worksite, “to include employees at higher risk of COVID-19.”

The USDA-wide guidance for reopening specifies that telework may be maintained for employees that can perform their duties from home and, “provided medical documentation demonstrating they are at higher risk for COVID-19.”

But the letter-writers noted that such guidance excludes some employees who would still be considered at-risk:

“Employees 65 or older, recognized by the CDC as high-risk, are explicitly excluded from such flexibilities by USDA. Additionally, employees who live with high risk family members may be recalled to the office and are being provided with no clear flexibilities (e.g., 100 percent telework) in Phase 3 of the reopening. Likewise, employees who rely on public transportation to commute to the office (a high risk activity during a pandemic) and employees who have unexpected care-giving responsibilities due to COVID-19 facility closures appear to have no clear options available to them. Indeed, the agency’s guidance does not appear to assure these individuals any flexibilities at all. Rather, much of the agency’s guidance appears to place the responsibility on employees to work with their individual managers to attempt to secure accommodations.”

The government has been criticized on the whole for relying on vague guidance that puts the responsibility on individual agencies to determine when and how it is safe to bring employees back to the office.

“We agree with these members of Congress who believe it is unnecessary to put successfully teleworking federal employees at risk by forcing them back into crowded offices without adequate safety protocols, and we hope that USDA management will rewrite its plans in a way that gives employees confidence that their health and safety is of paramount importance,” National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said in a statement.

Meanwhile, many offices have reported that telework has not negatively impacted productivity.

“The Secretary and high-level agency officials have repeatedly lauded USDA employees for their success in conducting their work and providing exemplary levels of customer service while working remotely since March,” the members of Congress wrote.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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