OPM offers up more telework guidance amid growing coronavirus concerns

The Office of Personnel Management has offered up more guidance for the federal workforce amid steadily mounting concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

OPM released 13 pages of new guidance Saturday afternoon, shortly after six Democratic senators criticized the agency’s previous resources on the topic as “unnecessarily complex.” The senators urged OPM to clarify federal employees would continue to get paid and wouldn’t be asked to work while sick.

The American Federation of Government Employees, meanwhile, asked OPM to allow all federal employees who are telework-eligible to immediately begin working remotely.

The latest OPM guidance doesn’t go that far, but it does attempt to clear up some confusion about what leave options are available and how exactly agencies should deploy telework during incidences of the coronavirus.

Highlights from OPM’s latest guidance are summarized below.

Find more resources from OPM on the agency’s coronavirus web page here. Learn more about the use of telework during a government emergency here.

What happens if employees are exposed to a confirmed case of coronavirus?

Federal employees may encounter several different scenarios if, for example, their agencies close due to a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the office. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the current strain of the coronavirus.

Telework participants who aren’t sick are expected to work from home, according to OPM.

“Agencies should have written telework agreements in place with as many employees who are willing to participate and communicate expectations for telework in emergency situations, ” OPM said. “It is important for an agency to have a solid technology infrastructure established to support a high level and volume of connectivity, so employees can work seamlessly from their alternate locations (e.g., home) and maintain established records and security requirements. Managers, employees and organizations must remain flexible and adapt to the changing environment.”

Generally speaking, most agencies don’t allow their employees to telework if they’re expected to care for small children at the same time. But agencies may consider loosening up those policies, OPM said, especially if schools are closed due to a coronavirus incident.

Agencies should grant weather and safety leave to federal employees who aren’t telework eligible but have been asked to quarantine at the direction of public health officials.

Employees who become ill during an agency-directed period of quarantine must use sick leave, OPM said.

“Agencies must grant sick leave when an illness, such as COVID-19, prevents an employee from performing work,” the OPM guidance reads.

How else can agencies manage telework?

Telework-eligible federal employees who are healthy but have been in direct contact with someone else exposed to the coronavirus can ask their supervisors to work remotely, OPM said.

Agencies could also consider what duties a non-telework eligible employee could perform from home for a period of time. These activities could include, according to OPM, reading reports, setting up conference calls, analyzing documents and other materials and preparing written reports and other correspondence.

Agencies should sign “ad-hoc” telework agreements with these employees to cover the period of time where they might be working remotely, OPM said.

Employees who are healthy but choose to stay home because a family member has been asked to quarantine can also ask their supervisors to telework.

Again, OPM has urged agencies to be flexible in these situations. But the situation is different for employees who choose to stay home to care for an asymptomatic family member who’s quarantined due to possible coronavirus exposure.

Healthy employees who choose to stay home to care for a family member must use annual leave or some other form of paid time off, according to OPM.

What happens if employees run out of sick leave?

Agencies can grant advanced sick leave to an employee who is sick with the coronavirus or must care for a ill family member, OPM said.

Specifically, agencies can advance up to 30 days of sick leave “if the employee would jeopardize the health of others by his or her presence on the job because of exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease,” like the coronavirus, according to OPM guidance.

Agencies can grant up to 13 days of advance sick leave if an employee is taking care of a family member “who would jeopardize the health of others by his or her presence in the community because of exposure” to the virus.

Do employees need a doctor’s note?

It depends on your agency.

Employees who become sick with the coronavirus and ask for at least three days or more of sick leave don’t necessarily need a doctor’s note, OPM said.

Agencies may take an employee’s own word as an acceptable reason for his or her absence from work. Other agencies may require certification from a doctor or some other written evidence, OPM said.

Supervisors should use their best judgment and follow their agency’s internal practices for granting sick leave,” OPM said. “Agencies should also be mindful about the burden and impact of requiring a medical certificate.”

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