GSA’s coronavirus plan for federal offices needs ‘immediate action,’ IG warns

The General Services Administration, in its capacity as the federal government’s landlord, has been urged by its inspector general to take “immediate action” to improve its communication and cleaning procedures for the coronavirus pandemic.

The IG report released Thursday claims GSA’s Public Buildings Service, in some cases, didn’t receive or give timely notice to agency employees that someone in their office tested positive for COVID-19.

PBS policy requires that all occupants and contractors in federally owned or leased buildings hear about suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases or in their office no more than 24 hours after they’re reported to the GSA Office of Facilities Management.

But in two of the 11 federal facilities that IG auditors reviewed, PBS found out about positive COVID-19 cases a week out from when the tenant agency officials knew about it.

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Meanwhile, PBS didn’t tell agency employees at one facility about a positive COVID case until 16 days after learning about it, and another facility’s staff found out about another COVID incident a week after PBS knew about it.

PBS also didn’t meet the 24-hour reporting requirement for two of the leased office spaces that IG auditors reviewed.

PBS Commissioner Dan Mathews told the IG that the agency is “only responsible for notifying designated points of contact for each of the building occupants,” unless the occupants are GSA employees or contractors. Those points of contact, in turn, are responsible for sharing the information with other building occupants.

The agency updated its policy in July to clarify its position that it’s only responsible for notifying designated points of contact — not all building tenants, contractors or visitors.

PBS has responded to more than 3,400 COVID incidents across 660 owned and more than 1,000 leased properties during the coronavirus pandemic.

PBS requires agency employees to report coronavirus cases to their supervisors, who in turn must notify the chain of command within the agency. From there, the agency must notify all staff in the building, as well as its GSA facility or lease administration manager.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, said it was “unconscionable” that federal employees had to wait two weeks to find out about positive COVID tests in their workplace.

“This patchwork approach has resulted in a failure to clearly and quickly share positive COVID-19 cases, threatening the health and safety of federal workers, contractors, building occupants and the public,” Connolly wrote.

In June, Connolly sent letters to 24 agency IGs requesting their plans to oversee agency plans to return employees to federal office buildings.

The IG also found that PBS “does not have assurance that contractors are cleaning and disinfecting space in accordance with applicable requirements,” because the agency didn’t update or modify its contractor oversight plans for COVID-19 cleaning at any of the sites that auditors reviewed.

Mathews said the agency has required all custodial contractors to submit a pandemic plan, and that the agency was not required to update its contractor oversight plans for the facilities the IG reviewed.

“As contractors submitted their Pandemic Plans, responsible PBS officials reviewed them and, as necessary, worked with the contractors to revise them until the plans were acceptable. This resulted in having an up-to-date Pandemic Plan in place for every one of the PBS custodial contracts,” he wrote.

However, the IG found that asking cleaning contractors to submit a pandemic plan “does not absolve PBS of its responsibility to inspect work and ensure that it is performed in accordance with PBS and CDC guidance.”

PBS earlier this summer unilaterally added language to its cleaning contracts for federally owned buildings requiring custodians to wipe down all high-contact surfaces in common and high-traffic areas at least once a day.

It also issued unilateral lease amendments with similar requirements for the owners of more than 8,000 federal leased office spaces.

This new language requires cleaning surfaces in federal offices first with soap and water, followed by a disinfectant from a list of EPA-approved products.

Mathews said PBS will re-emphasize each building occupant’s obligation to notify his agency about all potential COVID-19-related incidents.

“However,” he added, “it is the responsibility of building occupants to notify PBS of affected individuals, and to disseminate information related to COVID-19 incidents to their organizations.”