To all the teleworking federal employees and contractors: I share your pain. Officially, yes I do, today.
Pain might not be the right word. I’ve talked to numerous feds — and contractors and non-profit people — who said they’re sorta getting used to working from home.
For the first time ever, I am working from the Potomac, Maryland bureau of Federal News Network. Specifically, my daughter’s former bedroom, its walls still painted lavender, her choice of her high school days. That’s one advantage of having the kids grown and out — three empty bedrooms to convert to other uses so the kids can never move back.
Out the big second story window, which looks out on my street, I see the dog walkers and runners in the morning. Why is that man wearing a face mask when there’s no one nearby, I wonder. Personally I find the face mask phenom sort of sad and creepy in a way. I’m not yelling “Let’s open!” I just don’t want to get used to this.
By “working”, I mean more than merely email and word processing. I must also include the highly technical job of recording interviews with guests over the telephone or internet. It sounds simple. Those suction cup microphones that attach to a telephone headset? Nah, they won’t cut it.
For broadcast-grade work you need real gear and the help of an engineer to achieve good sound and a phenomenon known as “mix minus.” In my little setup it requires no less than 12 cables to record two voices. Plus seven discrete pieces of equipment if you include the PC and the iPhone. My “engineer” was our DoD reporter Jared Serbu, who not only talked me remotely through all the setup but also made the cables. If Jared had been born a generation earlier, he’d have been one of those kids who studied the Lafayette Radio catalog page by page.
Like most organizations, we’ve got multiple channels of communication. A while back, Slack became to messaging what during the pandemic Microsoft Teams has become to videoconferencing in the pandemic. I never realized you could conference through Slack until producer Eric White “phones” me on it. We also have Ring Central and all the traditional means of communicating.
What teleworking produces in abundance is screen time. What it restricts is human interaction with colleagues. At home you sometimes have too much interaction with spouses, significant others, roommates, kids — with whomever you are domiciled.
Human interaction with colleagues, though, is what potentially spreads the virus. My mind keeps returning to feds who, because of the nature of their work, can’t telework.
Last week I reported on interview with two unions connected to the FAA. Both said they had good relations with management, and were well supplied with coronavirus safety items.
Check out my interview with Paula Schelling, the president of the AFGE local representing meat packing plant inspectors with the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The virus threat has enhanced the difficulty of an already-difficult job. She described relations with the agency as “frayed.”
Schelling complained of the slow response of FSIS management to the need for face masks and shields.
Whether it was because of union hectoring or because the agency had difficulties with shortages, there’s apparently an equitable ending here. Wednesday I heard from FSIS management. A spokesman stated, “On May 1, 30,000 cloth face coverings were made available to FSIS personnel, over half of which have already been distributed to employees in the field. All requests for face covering by employees have been filled and are in distribution.” He went on to say another 50,000 cloth face coverings arrived subsequently, plus 320,000 paper masks. And, that FSIS took delivery of 5,000 face shields, while anticipating another procurement such that every field employee would be equipped with two. FSIS is also receiving 2,000 gallons of hand sanitizer every week, according to the spokesman.
I must also tell you the spokesman wasn’t merely delivering this news. He also wanted to convey the agency’s position that it always felt obligated to provide this gear, that provisioning these items wasn’t a collective bargaining issue, and that the agency had initial trouble trying to procure them along with everyone else facing initial shortages.
A couple of guests yesterday pointed out we’re eight weeks into this … whatever you want to call the hairball of pandemic, stay-at-home, teleworking twilight. Two thoughts. We’re working, so even if we’re arguing, we’re working. And, it brings to mind a line from the long-running off-Broadway musical, The Fantasticks. “Life never ends in the moonlit night…And the play is never done, Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit, and burnished by the sun.”
Canada actually has a law about saying “sorry.” The Apology Act, passed in 2009, is a short piece of legislation designed to encourage people to apologize by ensuring that if they do, it cannot be used against them as proof they did something wrong in criminal proceedings.