Why can’t OPM just order me to telework during the coronavirus pandemic?

Love or hate it, when a snow storm or hurricane hits the national capital region, federal employees look to the Office of Personnel Management for a “weather call.”

OPM, often in the wee hours of the morning, consults with local government, school districts and transportation authorities, as well as federal weather experts, to decide whether employees in the region should stay off the roads and work from home.

Members of Congress and federal employee groups over the past week have called on OPM to  make a similar call, this time ordering all eligible federal employees to immediately begin to telework due to rapidly growing concerns over the coronavirus.

But for a worldwide pandemic like COVID-19, the illness caused by the current strain of the coronavirus, OPM won’t likely make the call.

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It doesn’t have the authority.

The Telework Enhancement Act, which Congress passed back in 2010, gives OPM relatively narrow authority over the program. It allows OPM to consult with other agencies in developing their own policies. It instructs OPM to set up a website, track agencies’ use of telework and then report on it to Congress.

But that’s about it.

“[OPM] can authorize agencies to authorize what’s called unscheduled telework, in event of inclement weather or a federal closure,” Mika Cross, a federal workplace expert, said. “But they can’t mandate much of anything, and that’s really unfortunate. When you think about one of the primary tenets of the Telework Enhancement Act being continuity of government, continuity of operations and mission efficacy. You miss that piece.”

Instead, it’s up to each individual agency to set a telework policy that’s unique to their own organization — and determine who’s eligible to use it.

Cross, who managed work-life programs at the Agriculture Department, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies for several years, said the 2010 telework act has given agencies a lot of leeway on telework.

“Even how an agency defines who is eligible to participate in telework varies,” Cross said. “The definition of eligibility for one agency could mean if you could telework or work remotely even a portion of one work day in an entire calendar year, you could, in theory, be considered telework eligible.”

According to OPM’s last report to Congress on telework, about 43% of the federal workforce, or about 1 million employees, were eligible for the program in fiscal 2017.

Of that number, 436,732 federal employees actually teleworked in 2017, while 33,078 workers used the program in a single month, September 2017.

OPM has, in recent days and weeks, encouraged agencies to authorize unscheduled telework and leave due to growing concerns over the coronavirus. It’s urged agencies to set “ad hoc” agreements with employees who might not traditionally be eligible for telework.

There’s been a lot of encouragement. But not much else.

The leeway that agencies have under the Telework Enhancement Act has driven many of the mixed messages federal employees have seen in recent years, Cross said.

That’s led individual agencies, such as the Agriculture and Education Departments, Social Security Administration and others, to cut back on the number of days that employees can telework in normal circumstances.

And now during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s prompted a mixed bag of plans and responses for the coronavirus.

Some federal employees have said their agencies are dragging their feet to take decisive action and allow all telework-eligible employees to work from home.

Employees who asked their supervisors whether they should begin to take laptops and other materials home daily in the event they’d be told to telework were told SSA was following guidance from OPM and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to emails reviewed by Federal News Network.

“When the Superbowl was in Atlanta, the entire regional office teleworked for over a week to ease congestion and enhance security,” another SSA employee said in an email to Federal News Network. “It also teleworked for the NCAA football championship game for the same reasons. Why will the agency allow telework for the Superbowl but not when potential lives are on the line?”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

The Canary Islands aren’t named after the birds; they’re named after dogs. The archipelago’s Spanish name Islas Canarias is derived from the Latin phrase Canariae Insulae which means the “island of dogs.” King Juba II of Mauretania, an ancient Kingdom in the Maghreb, is thought to have named the island of Grand Canaria due to the presence of many large dogs on the island. Eventually, the entire archipelago became referred to as the Canary Islands.

Source: Word Atlas

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