Federal agencies’ plans to return employees to the office in 2020 were inconsistent and did not always match governmentwide and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, according to an Oct. 25 report issued by the Government Accountability Office.

Just over a month after nationwide shutdowns related to COVID-19 sent all but the most essential feds home to telework, the Trump administration issued guidance on how agencies should plan to return workers to the office.

“Agencies’ approaches to reentry planning in 2020 varied in several ways including the characteristics of their phases for reentry, how decisions about movement between phases were made, the function and membership of agencies’ reentry working groups, and the content of their reentry plans,” the report said.

“All the agencies developed phased approaches for reentry,” it continued. “Agencies did not progress through the established phases at the same rate and the characteristics of each phase differed by agency.”

“Some variation is to be expected based on agencies’ missions and because progression between each reentry phase was to be informed by state and local guidance as well as local trends in reported COVID-19-like symptoms, documented COVID-19 cases and availability of hospital beds,” GAO acknowledged. “However, this inconsistency means that government employees located in the same area, but working for different agencies, might have been subject to different safety protocols.”

Each phase of reentry also did not include the same percentage of employees returning to the office from agency to agency, with capacity limits for phase one ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent and limits for phase two ranging as widely as 25 percent to 80 percent.

Agencies like the IRS planned full staff returns for summer 2020, while others kept most of their staff at home.

“Agencies’ reentry plans aligned with many aspects of federal reentry guidance published in 2020. None of the agencies’ 2020 reentry plans covered all aspects of federal reentry guidance,” the report found.

“Guidance from the White House, OMB, CDC, and other cognizant agencies outlined elements for workforce reentry including factors to inform reentry with corresponding gating criteria and topics related to workplace safety and preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the report added, noting only eight of the 34 recommended safety elements were addressed by all agencies.

Most commonly, agencies failed to address protections for employees concerned about safety measures, training on reentry, protections for health screeners, leave flexibilities for COVID-vulnerable employees, ventilation controls, mask requirements and temperature checks.

Federal employee groups and members of Congress consistently criticized both the governmentwide and agency-specific plans for returning employees to the office under the Trump administration, characterizing them as “endangering the health and safety of federal workers.”

But with the beginning of the Biden administration, the federal COVID response shifted from pushing a return to the office to mandating safety protocols.

The White House established a Safer Federal Workforce Task Force to lead governmentwide policy, and agencies were required to designate COVID-19 coordination teams to oversee pandemic safety planning and compliance.

“Agency workplace safety plans developed between January and April 2021 generally addressed the principles specified in the guidance,” the report said.

It found that all of the agencies’ plans called for masks and physical distancing, but found the least commonly addressed safety principles were “(1) establishing processes to advise and support supervisors on reporting requirements for handling suspected COVID-19 cases in the workplace, (2) identifying points of contact for all questions related to the protection and confidentiality of employee medical data, and (3) installing physical barriers, where appropriate.”

The task force was designated as the responsible entity for providing oversight and ensuring agency compliance with governmentwide policy.

“In contrast to initial reentry planning in which there were multiple sources of guidance for agencies to use, agencies could rely on a single set of model safety principles and the Task Force for centralized information when developing their workplace safety plans,” the report said.

Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.

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