More federal employees are likely to be placed on telework or sent home on leave in the coming days due to coronavirus spread.
The Office of Management and Budget sent a memorandum to heads of agencies March 12 that instructed those agencies to maximize telework availability to employees that are in at-risk populations for severe cases of coronavirus, as per Centers for Disease Control guidance.
“These CDC-identified populations include older adults and individuals who have chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease or compromised immune systems. Agencies do not need to require certification by a medical professional and may accept self-identification by employees that they are in one of these populations,” acting OMB Director Russell Vought wrote in the memo.
The memo also encouraged agencies to approve safety-based leave for at risk individuals that cannot telework.
Even looking at the most straight-forward attribute that puts someone at risk, which is age, federal employees are likely to be impacted in far higher numbers than the general population.
According to March 2019 federal employment data, the most recent to be released by the Office of Personnel Management, nearly 30 percent of the federal workforce is over 55.
Only 25 percent of the general U.S. workforce is in that demographic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For the federal government, that 5 percent difference could have a notable impact, as some agencies have had to bring back already-retired employees to fill specialized jobs that would otherwise remain vacant.
The Office of Personnel Management encouraged agencies to prioritize telework as part of their continuity of operations plans, but union officials have said that implementation of and communication about those telework plans has been sub-par.
“Additionally, agencies are encouraged to consult with local public health officials and the CDC about whether to extend telework flexibilities more broadly to all eligible teleworkers in areas in which either such local officials or the CDC have determined there is community spread,” Vought wrote.
“Agencies are also encouraged to extend telework flexibilities more broadly to accommodate state and local responses to the outbreak, including, but not limited to, school closures.”
Though cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been widespread across the United States at this point, states like Washington, New York and California have seen particularly high spikes, according to CDC data.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.