Update: March 24, 2:25 p.m.
New employees can be sworn in virtually using apps such as FaceTime or Skype during the coronavirus pandemic.
OPM released new guidance March 24 addressing how to on-board new employees during a time of when much of the federal workforce is teleworking. OPM directed HR directors to work with department chief information officers to determine the best options for remote onboarding.
All documents needed to complete the onboarding process should be done electronically.
At the end of the national emergency, each agency should perform an swearing-in ceremony in-person, the guidance said.
Update: March 23, 4:30 p.m.
One memo, titled “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Schedule A Hiring Authority," OPM gave agencies the flexibility to temporarily fill positions up to one year, at any grade level.
“If this public health emergency or pandemic continues, agencies may also request extensions of appointments beyond 24 months from OPM on a case-by-case basis,” acting OPM director Michael Rigas wrote.
In another memo released March 20, Rigas told agency heads that they could request dual compensation reduction waivers for any emergency hiring it makes in response to the coronavirus outreak. The waiver will allow agencies to reemploy individuals needed to combat coronavirus.
A third memo from March 20 announced that OPM is canceling its annual Human Capital Reviews in fiscal 2020. In those reviews, agencies and OPM review successes and challenges of agencies’ human capital strategic plans.
Update: March 23, 10:21 a.m.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, is pressuring Congress to prioritize the health and safety of federal employees in a forthcoming coronavirus relief package.
Negotiations between the House and Senate on the relief package are ongoing. In a news release, AFGE called for the legislation to include mandatory telework and hazard pay for “front-line” federal employees. The union also urged Congress to include an “automatic presumption of workplace illness” for employees who interact with the public if they get coronavirus.
“Despite this growing pandemic, our members are coming to work every day to deliver essential services to the American people,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “Congress must in turn provide them at least basic health and safety protections, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help prevent the spread of this disease.”
The union also criticized a Senate relief package that failed a procedural hurdle Sunday night, “as a step backwards for federal employees.”
"Just as Americans across the country are starting to take serious steps to control the spread of coronavirus, the Senate Republicans tried to impose unrealistic and unwise limits on emergency sick leave for federal employees who may be exposed to coronavirus in the course of their duties,” Kelley said.
“Emergency paid sick leave for the federal workers who are risking exposure to keep our VA hospitals, airport terminals, prisons, and other vital services running for the American public must be expanded immediately. We encourage Congress to develop a package that puts working people and their safety first.”
Update: March 20, 12:38 p.m.
President Donald Trump said in a press conference that he has invoked the Defense Production Act to direct American businesses make ventilators and masks.
The Defense Production Act allows the federal government to direct private industry to meet the needs of national security, as the AP reported.
Vice President Mike Pence said that the federal government would announce a “major procurement” of N95 masks over the weekend.
Update: March 20, 11:30 a.m.
The Office of Personnel Management created a web page for federal employees outlining steps that OPM has taken in the last few weeks in regard to telework, as well as explaining the different types of pay and leave agencies have at their disposal as they manage the coronavirus crisis.
It also created an FAQ page for evacuation pay, another tool agencies can use to protect federal employees.
Update: March 19, 12:04 p.m.
GSA said in a news release March 19 that it has received reports of companies exploiting COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, to gouge prices on products “associated with COVID-19.”
“GSA has received reports of companies fraudulently claiming to be GSA vendors attempting to exploit legitimate COVID-19 concerns to mislead consumers into paying exorbitant prices for products associated with COVID-19,” GSA wrote in a press release.
GSA directed customers to its GSA Advantage plan to verify vendors and prices.
Update: March 18, 8:27 p.m.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., wrote in a tweet March 18 that the Office of Personnel Management isn’t doing enough to ensure that all capable federal employees are able to telework.
“OPM is not taking the actions we need to see on telework and it will endanger lives if they don’t move fast,” Beyer tweeted. “This delay is unacceptable.”
Beyer wrote a letter March 14 to then-OPM Director Dale Cabaniss asking the agency to expand telework to more federal employees. Cabaniss unexpectedy resigned March 17.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, applauded OPM’s action late March 18 that expanded telework, but noted that some agencies, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, have “failed to take the necessary steps.”
The release also said that the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education had gone to 100 percent telework.
Update: March 17, 10:30 p.m.
The Office of Management and Budget released a memorandum late Tuesday that instructed agency leadership to use the “full extent of their legal authority and discretion” to realign their agencies’ non-mission-critical operations in a way that cuts down on the risk of coronavirus exposure.
“In order to achieve this posture, consistent with The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America, the government must immediately adjust operations and services to minimize face-to-face interactions, especially at those offices or sites where people may be gathering in close proximity or where highly vulnerable populations obtain services,” acting OMB Director Russell Vought wrote.
“Exceptions may be needed when continued operations and services are necessary to protect public health and safety, including law enforcement and criminal-justice functions. Non-mission-critical functions that cannot be performed remotely or that require in-person interactions may be postponed or significantly curtailed.”
Specifically, the memorandum tells agencies to maximize telework for federal employees across the nation, including issuing mandatory telework orders where applicable.
Agencies were also told to review their professional services and labor contracts to extend telework flexibility to contract workers wherever possible.
Update: March 17, 8:45 p.m.
Major swathes of federal offices have been closed or restricted access in light of the danger posed by coronavirus.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced March 17 that all employees and contractors be moved to mandatory telework until further notice, though mission-essential personnel would continue to be granted onsite access.
“Although a limited amount of employees have tested positive for COVID-19, it is imperative that we take this pre-emptive step to thwart further spreading of the virus among the workforce and our communities," wrote Bridenstine.
“Agency leadership will continue to monitor the rapidly-evolving risks COVID-19 poses to our workforce. You should anticipate continued frequent communication from your center director, myself and others. Up-to-date agency announcements and guidelines are available on the NASA People website, please check it often."
NASA was one of the early agencies to conduct a mass telework day to test it’s networks in the event that a mandatory telework order would need to go into effect.
The Social Security Administration also decided to close all field offices to the public, moving its interactions with citizens fully online or over the phone. The decision was made due to the large number of older and at-risk Americans the agency usually interacts with on a daily basis.
Several SSA offices had already been set up for mass telework, as the agency made large IT investments in 2014 to enable more employees to work from home. Though agency leadership had recently determined that it wanted to move employees to working more in person, that setup will likely enable a smoother transition under coronavirus planning.
Update: March 17, 4:30 p.m.
As part of the initiative to reduce social interaction, the General Services Administration announced that it planned to convert all of the classroom-based training under the Federal Acquisition Institute to virtual sessions that are still led by an instructor.
The agency had already been conducting virtual training sessions up until that point, and students that enrolled in the in-person training will receive a notification about the change for their individual course.
Meanwhile, some agencies are being pushed to put off policy and decisionmaking while the heart of the pandemic is ongoing, such as a call for the Department of Interior to cease public land sales and put off public comment periods.
“Just as we called on the Department of the Interior (DOI) to take decisive action at national parks for the protection of our federal employees, we believe DOI cannot continue to operate under a “business as usual” mentality in regards to these other issues,” said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, in a statement.
There are huge implications and consequences surrounding proposed policy changes and lease sales. These actions should be given full and deliberate consideration, not rushed through at a time when we should be focused on the health and safety of the American people.”
Update: March 17, 11:30 p.m.
Some federal agencies have begun to close offices that face a higher threat from coronavirus spread or have extensive interactions with the public in an effort to keep employees and citizens safe.
The Railroad Retirement Board announced March 17 that it had determined the day prior to close its 53 filed offices to the public and convert all interactions to email or telephone.
“Older individuals with underlying medical conditions comprise a significant percentage of individuals who visit their local field office for assistance. Unfortunately, this same group of people are also within the group of people at high-risk of contracting the virus,” the news release about the closure states.
“The decision to close public access to field offices was made in order to mitigate the exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Limiting personal contact is the best method for combating widespread transmission of the virus for both our customers and our employees.”
Meanwhile, some agencies have closed specific offices, like the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to send all workers in it’s Chicago-area office home due to a sick employee, as first reported by the Washington Post.
Update: March 16, 4:20 p.m.
Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin will send a letter to President Donald Trump March 16 calling for more concrete requirements to keep federal employees home and away from a potential exposure to coronavirus.
The White House has already sent out guidance via the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to call on agencies to enact such measures, but according to Cardin and Van Hollen, that isn’t good enough.
“What they’ve done is provided general guidance. And we are still being contacted by federal agencies, saying that they don’t have enough clear direction from the White House, and employees are feeling very vulnerable,” said Van Hollen in a call with reporters.
“What we’re calling for the president to do — and Sen. Cardin and I are doing this with others from our area, but really around the country, since we have federal employees around the country and indeed around the world where the coronavirus is spreading — to mandate telework for all employees that are eligible to do so, unless there is a compelling reason not to do so, and to expand telework options to others.”
The White House released guidelines at a March 16 briefing that called for citizens to avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more, but the Maryland senators said that such guidance would be impossible for some federal employees.
“There’s no possible way for some of them to take public transit without being in groups of over 10. Let’s be consistent, and let’s maximize telecommuting,” said Cardin.
Federal unions have also found the latest federal response lacking in addressing the needs of the federal workforce, as 85 percent of federal employees work outside of the Washington Metro area.
“The administration needs to take more direct action to protect federal employees and the public they serve by immediately ordering all federal employees nationwide to telework if the work they do can be accomplished at home. This also means ensuring that employees have the equipment they need to do their work remotely," said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley in a statement.
The National Treasury Employees Union has called on the administration to follow Centers for Disease Control guidance and close all federal buildings with 50 or more employees.
“The half-measures taken so far are not enough because too many government workers are still working in full or nearly full offices,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a statement.
“Closing buildings halts the large gatherings, just as CDC recommends, allows telework to continue and provides weather and safety leave — as opposed to personal leave — for those who have jobs that are not eligible for telework.”
The situation thus far
As the latest in a series of escalating responses to the threat of coronavirus, the Offices of Management and Budget and Personnel Management determined March 15 that the community spread of coronavirus in Washington, D.C., and its surrounding areas was of enough concern to push agency leadership to grant telework to all employees that are eligible and to expand that eligibility as much as possible.
OMB already pushed agencies to send employees determined to be at a higher risk from coronavirus home via telework or emergency leave, but the new guidance expands that coverage to non-at-risk employees.
“If employees are not eligible for telework, agency heads have the discretion to offer weather and safety leave, or the agency’s equivalent, including for employees who may not have been considered ‘at higher risk under OMB M-20-13. Furthermore, agency heads should develop an operational plan that maximizes resources and functional areas to most safely and efficiently deliver these mission-critical functions and other government services (including but not limited to staggered work schedules and other operational mitigation measures),” the memo states.
OPM moved its status for Washington, D.C.-based federal offices from “open” to “alert,” which means that offices are still open, but with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, pursuant to the direction from agency heads.
Some federal agencies have already sent many of their employees home due to an increased risk or threat of exposure from a COVID-19 tested employee.
But the OPM status only applies to agencies in the Washington Metro area, meaning that only about 15 percent of the total federal workforce is likely to be covered by such requirements. Telework and emergency leave determinations are made by agency and department leadership in other parts of the country.
This is an ongoing story that will be updated as more information is released.
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.
Andrew Eversden covered all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. Beforehand, he reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.