The elephant in the room: Coronavirus and teleworking

Whoever said timing is everything sure knew what she was talking about. Take teleworking, please!

Whoever said timing is everything — some believe it was a mid-level bureaucrat in the HR department of the team that built the Great Pyramid — sure knew what she was talking about.

Take teleworking, please! Some people think we need it now more, maybe, than ever before. We’re talking about the many unknown consequences from the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

When first launched in government most bosses were against it. They figured out of sight meant loafing the job, or maybe actually performing another job while still getting paid by Uncle Sam. It took a generational sea change and big pushes by Congress, mostly House members from the Washington, D.C., metro area — to force agencies to adopt it. Since then it has been hailed as a way to cut down on traffic, pollution and to make feds more available during emergencies. It was of the continuation of government plans launched or updated following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

For decades, the number of teleworkers grew until recently, when some federal agencies — Social Security Administration being the biggest and best known example — have revamped their policy downward. Fewer employees are and will be telecommuting and of those who continue in the program the number of days they can work from home has or will be reduced. Backers of the plan say the idea is to get more employees back at the workplace where they can deal directly with the public and provide better service to more people. Opponents say it’s part of a Trump initiative to punish the two largest federal unions — the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union — which, incidentally, endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president.

Whichever argument you buy, this might be the perfect time to question if this is the right time to get people back at the office when so many places are telling people to stay home. Consider this comment from an SSA worker who still teleworks, but not nearly as much as before changes:

“I enjoyed your recent column about the folly of government agencies ending telework during a time of coronavirus. As a Social Security Administration employee, I saw my telework suddenly cut from two days weekly to zero last November, and it has not been restored. Thousands of other SSA employees in the field offices, payment centers, and teleservice centers were treated the same way; complete and sudden termination of telework.

“Regarding the coronavirus, we just don’t know how many people have this virus already. And we just don’t know if the virus will abate in the spring, or if it does abate, whether it will come back even stronger next fall. What we do know is that the coronavirus is present right now in most states, that it is contagious, its long-term effects on human health are unknown, and that people are dying from it.

“SSA does not want to admit the mistake, but the administration simply must admit that curtailing SSA telework was the wrong thing to do. SSA should immediately reinstate telework to the highest levels which previously existed. This will help to get the logistics and infrastructure of telework back into place, employees can get used to teleworking again, be safe at home on their telework days, and SSA can being preparing for telework five days per week if necessary.

“SSA employees in the field offices would be safer if they could do their interviews remotely. The claimants who visit the field offices would also be safer if they could get their business with SSA done over the phone or online. Social Security employees who work in the payment centers and teleservice centers would be safer doing their work at home, rather than working in close proximity to coworkers every day, any one of whom could have the coronavirus.

“Commissioner [Andrew] Saul sent out an email to employees last week, encouraging employees to stay at home if ill, and to wash our hands. However, people can have this virus and be contagious without knowing it. Washing hands improves one’s odds, but certainly does not eliminate the threat of catching it. Employees would be much safer working at home. The commissioner’s email avoided mentioning the elephant in the room: That the Social Security Administration’s recent decision to curtail our telework has unnecessarily put thousands of SSA employees health at risk. That decision should be revisited.” — Mr. B

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

It’s thought in one recent study that a reason sea turtles are prone to eating plastic debris floating in the ocean is that, the longer the plastic hangs around the more it becomes covered in algae and microorganisms. These smell like food to turtles. These microorganisms also produce a chemical compound in the water that becomes the molecule dimethyl sulfide when it hits the air, which to humans smells similar to cooked fish or vegetables.

Source: Smithsonian Mag

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