As the COVID-19 crisis continues to ravage our economy, many businesses face uncertainty about when their employees will be able to resume work as usual. For those of us in government contracting, this has produced particular challenges, especially for our employees working on projects for the defense and intelligence industries. And while recent stimulus efforts to reinforce the economy included support to the contracting workforce, the language used was vague and will likely lead to inconsistent interpretation, costly delays and ultimately, negatively impact the U.S. national security mission.
Government contracting is not without risks, and in recent years we’ve seen short-term shutdowns for weather events or budgetary issues such as sequestration. In the past, while federal employees have been paid for time not worked during a government shutdown, contractors had to use personal time off or take leave without pay. However, it goes without saying that we are facing an unprecedented scenario in our current national emergency. Unlike previous events, ongoing work disruptions are shaped by shelter-in-place and social distancing directives from local, state and federal governments, meaning agencies are directing contracting firms and their employees not to work. The failure to pay firms for this time will have severe financial impacts on both individuals and companies. Some companies may be forced to redeploy those individuals, reduce their work hours, or lay them off. This presents substantial risk to the government organizations that have invested great effort and dollars to build reliable and effective teams consisting of both federal employees and contractors.
At Hexagon US Federal, most of our 500 employees work in the DC capital region as well as in Alabama, Hawaii and Georgia. To do our part in contributing to public safety, we are encouraging and enabling employees to telework, maintain social distance, and flatten the curve. Unfortunately, a significant number of our team members can’t work from home. They may work on classified materials that cannot be accessed from an unsecured site, or their contract work might be delayed or discontinued to comply with public health directives from federal, state and local government agencies. We should ensure that government workforce solutions, particularly in the intelligence community (IC) and Department of Defense (DoD), apply solutions that cover the entire workforce – federal civilians, military personnel and contractors.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided desperately needed relief to sectors throughout the economy. Section 3610 of the legislation calls for contractors to be reimbursed in certain circumstances when health and safety restrictions prevent them from executing their contracts. But the statutory language is vague and requires clarifying guidance from the executive branch to be implemented effectively and consistently across the government.
Several actions can and should be taken to alleviate the burden for contractors and their employees. First, the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI), the DoD and IC should consider work in shifts to help ensure operations continue and that contracts across the IC are approached in a consistent manner. However, to ensure that contracting firms remain financially viable and are able to continue employing their highly skilled workers, contracts should be reimbursed as if the full complement of workers were on duty. Because funds have already been allocated to these contracts, no additional money would be required to take this step. Second, agencies should provide accelerated guidance and flexibility on contract modifications to enable contractors to telework and work from remote facilities, such as contractor-owned offices, as long as security requirements can be met. Finally, the government can ensure existing contracts allow employees to get paid during the crisis and not leave defense and intelligence employees to fend for themselves.
Our contracting workforce contributes to national security every day through its work on defense and intelligence programs. It’s now incumbent upon the government to ensure the well-being of these contractors and their employers, who make up a critical part of the overall Trusted Workforce. We are all in this together.
Chris Bellios is the Chief Operating Officer of Hexagon US Federal, in Chantilly, VA. Chris has over 35 years of experience in the defense and intelligence industries.