Federal civilian agency response to employee mobility during coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus’ impact is being felt across all areas of business, including the relocation of federal employees within the federal workforce. For example, the Defense Department has made the extraordinary decision to limit permanent change of station (PCS) assignments. Initially, the delay was set to end on May 11 but has since been extended to June 30. The State Department has taken similar steps, but recently resumed booking moves. We have not yet heard about any plans for and impact on our mobile civilian workforce. While focus has remained on the non-civilian workforce, plans for and the impact on our civilian workforce has been far less discussed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven an extraordinary amount of change to the daily life for federal agencies as well as the private sector both professionally and personally. Across government common themes have emerged:

  • Employee transfer volume for agencies not directly involved in the COVID fight has diminished significantly.
  • Plans for future employee moves are unknown or evolving.
  • Transfer volume has continued at a steady and heavy pace only for essential workers serving in law enforcement, national security or medical capacities. Non-essential moves for these agencies appear to be suspended.

Like their private sector counter-parts, federal employees that must move are experiencing many challenges. For example, household goods shipments cannot be picked up or delivered due to regional restrictions and health threats. Aside from just receiving goods, relocating families are also struggling to stay united with their families. In some cases, employees must move but family members cannot join them. Some employees are stranded on house hunting trips at a new duty station because flights are cancelled. Those that are purchasing or selling homes may not be able to close or may be unable to establish a new residence if their homes have sold.

The result of the above is personal sacrifice, and in some cases, financial hardship.


Government response and new coronavirus mobility policies

Federal relocation benefits are based in law and regulation. The GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP) is responsible for issuing policy through the Federal Travel Regulation. On April 17, OGP issued GSA Bulletin FTR 20-06 which provided expanded authority for agencies. This includes:

  • Ability to extend the period to complete a move from 12 months to 24 months.
  • Extended authority beginning March 13, 2020, to approve temporary storage for international and domestic moves. Agency authority to approve an extension expires on March 12,2021.
  • Ability to reimburse employees stranded due to flight cancellation while on a house hunting trip.

These additional approvals are to be made on a case-by-case basis. Agencies should consider the benefits of any expanded authority to support the mobility of their employees and move quickly to implement new policies.

While expanded authority has been provided to accommodate employees, there are additional needs. For example, an agency may only authorize a maximum number of days for temporary quarters. Additional authority is needed to extend beyond the current authority, but this would require legislative change. In addition, agencies could benefit from expanded benefits for experienced new hires who currently are receiving very basic relocation benefits when compared to their private sector counterparts.

Suggestions for additional federal coronavirus policy changes

Value of Public-Private Collaboration

Agencies frequently partner with relocation management companies and other suppliers that play a critical role in supporting transferred families during this time. These contractors support both private and public sector employers around the globe and are an exceptional resource for guidance and knowledge sharing. The GSA Employee Relocation Resource Center (ERRC) manages hundreds of agreements with suppliers related to relocating federal employees including relocation management companies, such as BGRS, and household goods providers. The GSA ERRC immediately took steps to respond to industry concerns about the immediate business challenges as well as the welfare of the federal employees in their care. This included instituting a weekly supplier community discussion group as well as a weekly agency community discussion. In addition, they are fielding record numbers of inquiries from industry and agencies to deal with individual move situations. This is the type of public-private collaboration that benefits both the government and industry and addresses immediate needs. This type of collaboration is also needed at the individual agency level.

Management of Contract Terms

It is necessary to reassess the application of contract terms to realistically reflect current conditions. Most contracts include performance requirements, sometimes tied to financial penalties, for failure to meet contract timelines or other events. Normal functions in pre-defined performance timeframes are unfeasible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Home inspectors cannot enter and fully assess a property, nor can pickup and delivery of household goods be accomplished the way we used to do it. One of the key roles of the Relocation Management Company (RMC) is to establish realistic expectations with the family especially when we do not know what to expect. If agencies have not had conversations with their mobility partners about their approach regarding contract performance, the time to do so is now.

Implementing Recovery Planning

Collaboration with an agency’s RMC and supplier partners to ensure agency resilience and recovery planning is an important consideration. The deeper level of partnership creates the opportunity to implement a broader range of contingency plans and explore potential assignment-focused actions with greater efficiency.

Looking beyond the pandemic, government agencies’ relocation management companies, and their supplier partners in the relocation chain, should consider requiring an established business continuity plan, with active maintenance as part of their partnership requirement. This approach will create the opportunity for government agencies to partner with their RMCs and explore additional support approaches for future continuity planning.

Improving Communication

Proactive outreach and communication with an RMC or other supplier should be focused on organizational sharing of current guidance. This may involve agency guidance related to contract management, human resources, talent management and finance. By providing important policy guidance that shapes current and future move patterns, contractors can develop proactive workforce management plans to assure continued support of agencies and contribute to agency talent management objectives. Absent this information, companies are likely to make decisions that do not contemplate agency needs.

Further agency discussions should include a “return-to-work” strategy, particularly if your suppliers anticipate pent up demand for services they provide. As an example, once DoD lifts its current move restrictions, how does your supplier expect this to impact your agency’s relocation needs?

Continuous two-way communication enables supplier partners across a broad range of services to continually assess real-time capabilities and identify potential risks around short-term delivery of services. These include active monitoring of evolving governmental rules and requirements pertaining to permitted activities within a region. Identifying additional resources, should they be needed, is another way to provide full and timely delivery of services that comply with local rules and regulations.

Continuing to navigate unknown impacts for suppliers and agencies

Many suppliers delivering relocation services have already implemented their business continuity plans because they are realizing a range of demand, service continuity and financial effects resulting from the outbreak.

For example, within the U.S. real estate market, government mandates for social distancing and quarantine-based practices are driving changes to real estate sale agreements. Many brokerages, title companies, and realtor boards are introducing COVID-19 rider addendums that include sale cancellation clauses which creates financial burdens for the agencies offering home sale as part of their relocation programs.

Similarly, the household goods industry is experiencing specific requests to enter “Red Zone” areas and customer requests that crew members wear personal protective gear, often not available. In addition, international shipments are disrupted because unaccompanied baggage cannot be shipped through traditional means, high demand for shipment containers is causing cost increases and port entry and departure requirements vary dramatically.

Temporary housing is another area impacted by regional and health restrictions and, where the capability is available, often must be viewed virtually. Landlords and tenants may be required to disclose additional personal information. In the worst possible cases, there may be no housing availability at all, especially for foreign guests.

While the above are just a few examples, each supplier in the relocation chain has had to pivot their delivery model, almost overnight, to support unprecedented challenges. This includes a workforce working entirely from home under many different guidelines, disruption to normal business volume and cash flow.

Agencies, relocation management companies and their suppliers need to continue to plan additional support approaches and keep employee-facing suppliers apprised of the most recent protocols being put in place regarding COVID-19. BGRS and our agency clients will continue to work closely together. We will keep the lines of communication open and continue to offer support to ensure our clients’ and their mobile employees’ needs are safely met during this extraordinary time.

Amber Tucker is vice president of BGRS, a global mobility company that provides a suite of services to the US government, the Canadian government, and corporate clients, including transportation, logistics, relocation, real estate, talent management.