Agencies still ‘far too stingy’ with telework during coronavirus spread, NTEU says

Two of the largest federal employee unions on Thursday called on the Trump administration to step up their efforts to protect federal employees from COVID-19, as recent attempts are falling short, they said.

Though some have expanded and loosened telework requirements — mostly at the local and regional levels — unions are calling on agencies to more swiftly and definitively allow as many eligible employees as possible to work remotely.

“This shouldn’t be that hard, and it is the smart and responsible thing to do,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told reporters Thursday. “Here’s the best part, telework keeps the government running. The job still gets done. The taxpayers are well-served. With all of this talk about continuity of operations, telework, in many cases, is the best answer. Too many agencies are being far too stingy with it.”

The Office of Personnel Management on Saturday offered up more guidance on how agencies could enter into “ad-hoc” telework agreements with their employees. Telework is an integral part of agencies’ continuity of operations plans, OPM said, and agencies should enter into agreements with as many employees as possible to ensure they’re prepared.

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“There is clearly no one, single, cookie-cutter approach to ensuring the health and safety of federal employees,” Reardon said. “That is why this administration needs to empower managers and supervisors to start making decisions that are in the best interest of their employees and the health and welfare of the American public.”

The American Federation of Government Employees called on the Social Security Administration to reinstate telework for operations employees in field and regional offices where the program has been canceled.

“As the coronavirus spreads throughout the country, SSA field office and payment service center employees who routinely interact with the public are rightly concerned that SSA is putting both their health and the public health at risk,” Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents SSA operations employees in the field.

Several SSA employees have emailed Federal News Network in the past few days to express concerns with the agency’s response. 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.

Three transportation security officers at the San Jose International Airport in California have tested positive for the coronavirus, AFGE said Thursday.

About 40 employees who had contact with the virus-stricken TSOs have been asked to quarantine.

“AFGE is extremely concerned that safety protocols have not been sufficiently communicated to the front-line workforce,” Everett-Kelley, the union’s national president, said in a statement to the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “Agencies are not communicating with their workforces with enough information or to a degree that will allow them to protect themselves or the public in a timely manner to contain the spread of this virus.”

The union is calling on the Transportation Security Administration to provide better protective gear for its workforce.

Reardon said he hasn’t heard of any NTEU member who has tested positive for the coronavirus, though he acknowledged few Americans have been tested in the first place.

NTEU, which began asking agencies for their pandemic plans a few weeks ago, said they’ve seen a “mixed bag” of agency responses to the coronavirus.

The union has heard stories from some members at the IRS, where things like cleaning supplies and sanitizing wipes were in short supply.

NTEU is asking the IRS to modify shifts or move employee desks farther apart, so fewer people are working in the office at once, Reardon said.

For Customs and Border Protection, some officers are concerned they haven’t been informed of the passengers who are asymptomatic during a port screening but contract the virus later.

“That is something we’re hearing over and over again from our CBP officers that is extremely disconcerting to them,” Reardon said.

Too many agencies are still pointing their employees to general guidance from the CDC or OPM in lieu of providing organization-specific instructions to their workforce, NTEU said.

Reardon said he has seen agencies such as the Federal Election Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, take steps to protect their workforces with more urgency.

Other agencies have the told the union they’re considering additional telework expansions.

“It is time to stop thinking about it, it is time to implement and make this happen,” Reardon said. “I cannot underscore for you and highlight in bold and italicize and everything else, the fact that federal employees, the ones that I’m hearing from, are scared. They’re anxious, and they’re looking for leadership from their agencies [and] from this government, and they’re not seeing it.”