Agencies should ensure employees are ‘telework ready’ amid coronavirus concerns, OPM says

The Office of Personnel Management is urging agencies to ensure as many federal employees as possible are prepared for telework, amid growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus across the United States.

The instructions are part of a new, preliminary guidance from OPM, which the agency released late Tuesday night. It came at the request of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, OPM Director Dale Cabaniss said.

Specifically, OPM advised agencies to incorporate telework in their continuity of operations plans (COOP). Those emergency plans supersede an agency’s previous telework policies, according to OPM.

“Agencies should immediately review their current COOP plans to ensure that telework has been fully incorporated and that as many employees as possible have been identified as telework employees in the plan, and are telework capable (or ‘telework ready’),” Cabaniss wrote.

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It’s unclear how exactly agencies will respond to these instructions, as a handful of agencies have made cuts or changes to their telework policies in recent years.

The departments of Agriculture and Education, as well as at least one component within the Department of Health and Human Services, have all reduced telework to one day a week. The Interior Department eliminated telework for supervisors.

For employees at the Social Security Administration, reduced telework schedules went in effect this week.

One agency has asked its telework-eligible workforce to participate in a practice exercise later this week.

Some Air Force employees at the Pentagon have been asked to work from home this Friday as part of a department “telework capacity test day.”

“The primary goal of this test is to stress the network that supports our teleworking capability,” Lindy Singleton, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We are required to test this capability once a year, which we normally accomplish during a ‘snow day.’ This year we haven’t had a significant weather event, so we’ve elected to conduct a test this Friday.”

Air Force employees who previously had the day off or had planned to take leave on Friday are exempt from the telework capacity test, according to a message from the agency, which Federal News Network obtained.

The Department of Homeland Security already closed one of its federal office buildings in Washington state and ordered telework for all its employees. A DHS employee had visited the nursing home at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Kirkland, Washington, before the impact of the virus there was truly known.

DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Congress he had closed the office “out of an abundance of caution.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday it was treating a veteran for the coronavirus at its medical center in Palo Alto, California.

“VA is monitoring the situation through its emergency management coordination cell and collaborating with public health officials from HHS and the Centers for Disease Control to ensure veterans benefit from the latest prevention, testing and treatment protocols and develop emergency management plans for medical centers,” a VA spokeswoman said in a statement to Federal News Network.

The department said last week it has sent guidance to VA medical professionals about the coronavirus but didn’t elaborate on what precautions it was taking for federal employees.

In addition, OPM has urged agencies to review domestic travel plans for its employees. Employees who plan to travel should check for updates and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The intent of this travel guidance is not to be prescriptive, but to present a framework for decision making among the departments and agencies,” Cabaniss said. “All agencies shall review their travel policies and begin to reduce non-essential travel as appropriate.”

Employees who have traveled to countries that have been designated as “level four,” “do not travel” regions by the State Department should stay home and track their health for 14 days after returning to the U.S., OPM said.

OPM is not advising the cancellation of any conferences or large-scale meetings that are not located in one of these “level four” regions.

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Federal employees who have international travel plans should consult with the State Department, OPM said.

State and federal health officials are speaking regularly with agency headquarters and regional leaders about the control and containment of the coronavirus, OPM said. All federal facilities have their own designated officials who can set guidelines and other policies on the admission of visitors to these buildings. These officials have the authority to change their visitor policies at any time.

OPM and the Office of Management and Budget, meanwhile, will host calls with agencies to discuss other human resources challenges that arise, Cabaniss said.

The National Treasury Employees Union is gathering information about the virus for its members and will post resources on a centralized website. The union has asked to meet with all agencies where it has members. It’s also collecting agency pandemic plans, Tony Reardon, NTEU national president, said Wednesday at the union’s legislative conference.

The latest coronavirus guidance from OPM earned some criticism from another federal employee union.

“History tells us that limited guidance to departments and agencies often backfires because guidance is embraced inconsistently from agency to agency and location to location,” Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said Wednesday in a statement. “That inconsistency can cause problems in and of itself. The Trump administration must get specific and issue detailed plans explaining how it will keep the government running and keep federal employees safe.”

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