Office that oversees congressional employee rights having a busier new year than normal

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Federal employees, pandemic, and telework – the phenomenon has become legend. Most of the attention has been on the executive branch. Over on Capitol Hill, members of Congress have improvised ways of working, including virtual hearings. But what about the 30,000-odd congressional staff members? For how they’re faring, Federal Drive with Tom Temin checked in with the Executive Director of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, Susan Tsui Grundmann.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Grundman, good to have you back.

Susan Tsui Grundmann: Greetings from OCWR Tom.

Tom Temin: Capitol Hill has been the site of lots of interesting attention in the past few months in the past year, but how are people doing on Capitol Hill with respect to avoiding COVID and dealing with your agency as well?

Susan Tsui Grundmann: Well, that’s a great place to start. And we have multiple means to hear from not just Hill staffers, but all legislative employees. Let’s just talk about two of them. For instance, one is of course our administrative dispute resolution procedure whereby employees raise issues covered by the Congressional Accountability Act such as discrimination and retaliation, and those are the major areas where we receive questions and claims. Some of these issues come in the context of this remote workplace that we now live in, telework concerns. Why are some allowed to telework and not others? And now that employees are starting to return to work, COVID related issues. What if an employee’s recalled to the workplace but lives with a family member or a roommate who has a compromised immune system? And I suspect we’ll see more of those questions as more people return to the workplace. The second avenue really is our education outreach program where we see greater demands, particularly for courses on implicit bias. And we have two certified educators in this area on staff. And in addition, at the request of some offices, we have developed and delivered training on racial equity, and civility and inclusion — and those requests started coming in last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and they’re still coming in. Our occupational safety and health folks are thinking forward and they are piloting a new means for education whereby an inspector will connect up with an employee at the employee’s request to review the ergonomics of the employee’s home or private workplace. So things tend to be quiet at the beginning of every Congress. But that’s not the case for us.

Tom Temin: It sounds like the workload then in the areas that you have to deal with have really increased as a result of the pandemic.

Susan Tsui Grundmann: That’s really true because we continue to conduct business remotely. Mediations and hearings occur in the virtual environment, education and training continues through Zoom meetings on with employing offices. Safety and health inspections also occur virtually, and even where physical inspections are called for, our inspectors maintain social distancing, follow the procedures set forth by the CDC and the Office of Attending Physician to reduce the transmission of COVID. So it’s not business as usual, but it’s usual business in a new norm.

Tom Temin: Sure. And we tend to think of Capitol Hill as Capitol Hill, but all of the members have remote offices throughout their states or through their jurisdictions of the House. And do you get issues coming in from the non Capitol Hill offices, some remote office in a distance state has the same issues, but maybe in a smaller scale. And you cover those workplaces also correct?

Susan Tsui Grundmann: And that’s a great point. Folks sometimes overlook that the CAA and our office has jurisdiction nationwide, including the state and district offices of the lawmakers. In fact, our legislation actually demands that we provide employees access to the same services from OCWR whether they are here in DC, or in Des Moines or anywhere in the country, regardless of what the issue involves. And to that end, we’re conducting training with the state and district offices remotely. The confidential advising has been and continues to be over the phone, hearings are now virtual. And our clerk of the board actually conducts one on one sessions with the parties and the hearing officers prior to a hearing to train them on these virtual platforms to ensure that everything goes smoothly. In terms of health and safety, let me focus on that for a second. The state and district offices can self certify through an online checklist that we have the talks about safety in their workplaces, electrical fire and emergency exits. We have a worksheet called common office safety hazards which addresses issues such as emergency response, and given the events of January 6, this section is particularly important because it includes such factors consider having an emergency action plan that must be in place, employees must be aware of it and understand it. Emergency duties must be assigned to someone on staff, evacuation planning and sheltering in place and all exit routes must be reviewed. And more particularly if the office evacuates, a designated meeting place and an alternate meeting place for employees to gather where a headcount is taken so that the office can account for everyone.

Tom Temin: So that’s a little bit of a burden on congressional members themselves, because they might enjoy the highest level of rectitude and proper procedure in their Washington offices, but they’re also responsible for what happens out there in the hustings too, aren’t they?

Susan Tsui Grundmann: Exactly.

Tom Temin: Alright. Let me ask you just briefly about the events on January 6, the breaking of the Capitol, any fallout from that that has reached your function your office?

Susan Tsui Grundmann: Well, as you know, the CEA includes the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which allows employees to request a health and safety inspection. It also covers the general public, who may request a public accessibility investigation, because the CAA incorporates the Americans with Disabilities Act. So to this point, and as a general rule, our general counsel automatically opens an investigation whenever an employee fatality occurs on Capitol Hill. And this process varies depending on the type of issue at hand. Bearing in mind that inquiries run the gamut from injuries to issues involving heat, stress and ventilation, to name a few. And no two investigations are alike. So let’s talk about the process. Unlike the ADR process, which is essentially backward looking, seeking to provide a remedy to employees for past events, often in the form of back pay, the inspections are actually forward looking, there is no past remedy for an employee or the public. The resolution is to abate the hazard and correct a health or safety or accessibility issue in the future. We are not out there to be punitive, the common ground is to find a safer, healthier and accessible place for all employees. The process itself will involve conversations with witnesses, relevant experts, sometimes on site inspection. And where there is a physical inspection, again, we conduct consistent with the CDC and the office as attending physician guidance. And remember, these inspections are in addition to the bi-annual inspections that we conduct every two years regarding the 18 million feet of grounds surrounding the legislative community.

Tom Temin: So in the case of the fatality that happened on that date, then in a way, there is no remedy because the place has been secured. And as far as we can tell, there will be a beefing up of security from now going forward. So maybe in that sense, it got so big, it really got beyond the OSWR. And this became a national issue. So it’s resolved in that sense.

Susan Tsui Grundmann: In the sense that, again, we’re not punitive, we’re not like the private sector, we cannot assess fines, again, it is a forward looking process, looking to make the place a better and safer and accessible place to be in.

Tom Temin: And just to wind up. What’s your sense, if you have one, of the general feeling on Capitol Hill? Are most of the people working remotely? And I guess most of them are, but as you indicated, not everyone. Is morale pretty good from what you can tell?

Susan Tsui Grundmann: Well, some are telecommuting, and some are not. People make it work. They adapt. We have adapted in our office. I mean, we went from working in the office to the next day working from home, and there are adjustments. I mean, there’s the question of whether there’s connectivity. That’s always an issue. And we still have to go into the office occasionally because there are issues that require attention. In terms of morale, you make it work.

Tom Temin: Susan Tsui Grundmann is Executive Director of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Thanks so much.

Susan Tsui Grundmann: My pleasure Tom. Take care.

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