This story was updated on Monday, March 16, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. to reflect additional updates from the Education Department.
As the Trump administration encourages agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” for federal employees, the Education Department has directed its workforce to immediately begin teleworking “to the extent possible.”
The all-staff email sent Monday morning by Education’s Office of Finance and Operations goes beyond the memo employees received Friday afternoon, which granted unscheduled telework and unscheduled leave to employees identified as high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All telework-eligible employees should continue to work from home until Friday, April 10, according to an email obtained by Federal News Network.
“This timing will be assessed continually, and we will inform you of any changes. Please coordinate with your supervisor if you are in a telework-eligible position,” the email said.
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The memo follows new guidance from the CDC and the Office of Management and Budget.
Employees with telework-eligible positions, but who aren’t yet telework-ready must come into the office to gather the equipment needed to telework.
“To the maximum extent possible, supervisors are to identify opportunities to shift work assignments of staff who are currently in non-telework-eligible positions to telework- eligible status by identifying portable work for them to perform,” the email said.
The agency said weather and safety leave may be granted for a “condition that prevents the employee or group of employees from safely traveling to or performing work at an approved location.”
In an all-staff email Friday afternoon, the agency said older employees, employees with serious chronic underlying health conditions, and other individuals identified as high-risk groups by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — such as pregnant women — are authorized to request unscheduled telework and unscheduled leave from Monday, March 16 through Friday, April 10.
The exemption also applies to employees caring for family and loved ones who are ill or have underlying health conditions.
The agency has asked supervisors to approve requests for episodic telework and unscheduled leave for employees affected by school closings or other child and family care provider issues, as well as mass transportation schedule changes.
“Employees are required to record telework hours, as well as hours of leave covering the time periods when they are tending to family or other responsibilities and/or activities,” the agency said in the email.
Employees who have an existing telework agreement should coordinate with their supervisor to request and begin unscheduled telework or scheduled leave. Employees must ensure they take the appropriate equipment and any work materials home daily.
Employees who are now eligible to telework, but who do not have an existing telework agreement should complete the Telework for Government Employees training in FedTalent and initiate a telework agreement through the Telework Agreement Portal.
“Once completed, you are eligible to request and begin unscheduled telework,” the agency wrote.
Employees who are ineligible to telework may request administrative leave based upon safety concerns or scheduled leave for any period during which they do not have sufficient portable work to perform.
Emergency employees and essential personnel should continue to work as normal and take direction regarding the next steps from their supervisor.
In an all-staff email Wednesday afternoon, Education Deputy Secretary Mick Zais told employees, “effective immediately,” to take their laptops home nightly to ensure they can work from an alternate location.
The memo also instructs employees to know how to connect to the network through a virtual private network, if necessary.
Education has also coordinated with its offices on updating Business Continuity Plans to ensure that staff are prepared to continue essential services “should the Department need to activate its Continuity of Operations Plan.”
If the agency does activate its Continuity of Operations Plan, Zais wrote, “all employees in Telework eligible positions will be required to work.”
“We are reminding all supervisors that the current Telework Policy provides authority for the use of episodic Telework in cases where it may be unadvisable for the employee to report to the workplace,” Zais wrote.
Examples, he added, “include employees with a potentially communicable illness that does not impact their ability to carry out their duties or where they need to care for family members who are ill, but still have hours where they are not providing care and are available to work remotely.”
Employees who work 10-hour days, four days a week, Zais wrote, can participate in episodic telework if they are on an episodic telework agreement.
The Education Department updated its telework policy in May 2018, requiring most employees to show up to the office at least four days a week.
But several Education employees told Federal News Network they feel frustrated that the agency or the Office of Personnel Management hasn’t mandated telework amid coronavirus concerns.
“Encouraging agencies to give telework is insufficient,” one employee wrote in an email. “I was told when I indicated that I would like to extend beyond my normal one day [a week], that I had to come into the office or take leave.”
The employee opted for leave because they would otherwise rely on public transit to get to work.
“It’s ethically wrong for me to come into work when I can and have worked remotely,” the employee wrote.
Later in his all-staff email, Zais clarified that first-line supervisors have the authority to approve episodic telework on a case-by-case basis.
If supervisors grant episodic telework, Zais said employees must be ready and prepared to work remotely. Several employees said the agency is holding telework training sessions Friday for those who don’t already have agreements in place to work from home.
However, employees also described supervisors who are unsure of how to proceed, or whether they themselves should be in the office, because they’re older than 60 or have chronic health conditions.
“There’s a lot of angst going on,” another employee told Federal News Network in a phone interview.
The Office of Management and Budget, in its most recent guidance released Thursday night, said older federal employees and those with underlying health conditions such high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease or compromised immune systems are considered at higher risk for the coronavirus.
Education has urged employees to take several steps to “maintain situational awareness” and “prepare for office closures as a result of the virus.”
Meanwhile, Zais said agency leadership is working with office heads on reviewing upcoming conferences and travel schedules and “identifying opportunities to host electronic forums where it makes sense.”
“More information,” he added. “Will be forthcoming on this topic.”
Mission-critical travel will continue, at the discretion of the principal operating component leaderships. Those decisions, Zais said, will be based on “mission needs, location of travel, and specific risk factors for employees.”
Education has shared links to the latest guidance from the Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the agency has also advised that employees “stay abreast of federal guidance.”
“We encourage you to research your destinations and travel-related information to determine if there is any mandatory, or recommended, self-monitoring or assessment required upon your return. Please also inform your supervisors of any planned personal travel, as it is important for ongoing communication to occur,” Zais wrote.
The agency is also working with the General Services Administration and its supply vendors to “make sure that offices are as clean as possible, hand sanitizer is readily available in all ED facilities, and that informative posters on protecting yourself from the virus are available and on display in all ED facilities.”
“The federal government has a strong and resilient workforce. We will get through this together,” Zais wrote.
When the Education Department changed its telework policy in May 2018, requiring most employees to show up to the office at least four days a week, the agency justified the change as an effort to “enhance collaboration between program offices and improve customer service to our internal and external stakeholders.”
But nearly a year into those telework changes taking effect, a majority of employees said in an internal survey last November, obtained by Federal News Network, that cutbacks to the telework program have decreased productivity, required staff to use more sick leave and annual leave, and hurt agency morale to the point that many have considered leaving the agency.
Aside from the cutbacks to telework last year, the agency also went through a major enterprise-wide reorganization and overhauled its IT infrastructure.
“Reorganizing the Department and demeaning us, killing morale, and getting people to quit is one thing,” one employee wrote.” Deliberately being ignorant to the detriment of public health is a new low. I’m supposed to be a future leader of the agency, but this is the proverbial straw.”