President Joe Biden made it a day one priority for federal agencies to standardize COVID-19 safety precautions across all federal workplaces via a Jan. 20 executive order, and agency leaders have begun to release their policies to meet those requirements and tailor them to agency-specific needs.
Agencies like the Department of Justice, Office of Personnel Management and U.S. Department of Agriculture all released formal plans this week based on that executive order, and the Department of Defense and NASA have released guidance on mask wearing and office safety measures.
On the whole, these new plans hew closely to requirements outlined in Biden’s executive order and Centers for Disease Control guidance, though they formally override COVID guidance documents issued under the Trump administration.
For example, previous OPM guidance guaranteed teleworking employees only a week of advance notice before returning to the office, but the new guidance mandates at least 30 days notice.
Masks will be mandatory in OPM offices, as well, where once they were optional.
The Trump administration came under fire in the early months of the pandemic for issuing surface-level guidance that left many workplace safety and return decisions up to individual agencies and offices, a move that officials said was designed to allow for flexibility, whereas critics argued it offered too few safeguards for employees and visitors to federal offices.
All of the new plans require simultaneous social distancing, mask mandates, occupancy limitations and regular cleaning protocols to maintain a safe working environment, rather than allowing one policy to cover for not following another.
Each of the plans also establishes a COVID-19 coordinating team, responsible for reviewing office safety measures, updating workforce plans, interfacing with contact tracing programs and determining appropriate steps in situations where COVID cases occur in the workplace.
Each plan also encourages employees and managers to default to telework wherever possible.
“OPM organizations that have onsite responsibilities currently not suitable for telework will report those work activities to OPM Human Resources for employees and, in the case of contractors, the Office of Procurement Operations, within one week of the issuance of this plan so that OPM HR may help determine whether there are opportunities for reengineering that would allow the work to be performed off-site,” the OPM plan states.
“Telework is generally a voluntary work option. However, per OMB guidance, federal employees should make every effort to work remotely unless their work requires their physical presence. This is a determination that the supervisor must make. Additionally, the OPM director or designated officials may direct employees eligible for telework who chose not to avail themselves of that opportunity to evacuate their regular worksites and perform work from their homes or an alternative location mutually agreeable to OPM and the employee in light of the current pandemic.”
Agencies are also anticipating an upcoming CDC plan for testing the federal workforce, as mandated by Biden’s executive order, and each of the agency plans released this week carved out room to follow that testing procedure once announced.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.