‘Maximum telework’ starting for USDA employees this week, but offices remain open

The Agriculture Department has announced plans to expand telework to eligible employees early this week, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools, state government buildings and other public facilities to close across the country.

The department’s latest telework plans are consistent with the guidance the Office of Management and Budget released Sunday evening, Stephen Censky, USDA’s deputy secretary, told employees later that night.

Supervisors in the national capital region, Washington state, California bay area and New York City area should develop plans to “maximize telework” for eligible employees starting Tuesday, March 17 through Friday, April 3.

USDA supervisors in other locations should make plans to expand telework for all eligible employees starting Thursday, March 19 through April 3, the department said in guidance released to the workforce late Sunday night, which Federal News Network obtained.

Advertisement

“Again, the continued delivery of our services to the American people must be maintained as supervisors make decisions on maximizing telework, and USDA offices are to remain open,” Censky wrote in an email to USDA employees Sunday night. “Due to the diversity of USDA’s operations and the services we deliver, many employees will need to continue to report to work to perform functions that cannot be performed remotely, and some employees may be able to work from home several days a week, but not every day, due to our service responsibilities. In granting expanded telework, supervisors should ensure the ability to maintain mission continuity and services.”

The department will “continually assess” the timing of these telework plans as the coronavirus evolves, USDA said.

USDA employees in the national capital region and other areas impacted by the community spread of coronavirus should expect an email from their supervisors by the end of Monday with specific telework plans.

Employees in other regions should receive an email from their supervisors with detailed telework plans by Wednesday evening, USDA said.

Employees who are eligible but not “telework ready” should gather necessary equipment and materials, USDA said.

“Weather and Safety leave is not authorized for employees who are not at higher risk of COVID-19, who are not telework eligible or are eligible but have declined to telework in USDA locations that will remain open,” Censky added.

USDA is also canceling previously scheduled telework capacity tests, except for the one planned for the agency’s research, education and economics (REE) mission area. The test will continue as planned on Monday.

The department reiterated on multiple occasions: USDA offices must stay open. USDA components that want to close their offices or reduce services must seek approval first from the department, Censky said.

Plans to expand telework come as a national capital region employee informed the department he or she had received a positive test result for the coronavirus, a USDA spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network.

“That same day, USDA notified employees who work in close proximity to the employee that they should begin teleworking immediately to help ensure the safety and health of our employees,” the spokesperson said. “Access to the affected area of the facility has been closed off and the area is being sanitized and deep cleaned in accordance with CDC guidance.”

This employee hasn’t been in the office, which is located on the second floor, sixth wing of the USDA’s South building, since March 11, Censky said.

USDA is one of a handful of federal agencies that have made controversial changes to their telework policies in recent years. The department  began limiting telework to one day a week for employees in 2018, a move that didn’t sit well with many employees.

Frustration has grown within the federal workforce by the day over their agencies’ responses to telework and the coronavirus. Though OMB and the Office of Personnel Management have issued multiple memos urging and encouraging agencies to expand telework over the past week, employees have said implementation has been a mixed bag.

Neither OMB nor OPM has mandated telework, and it’s ultimately still up to individual supervisors and agency leaders to approve telework requests or expand it more broadly across their workforces.

School closures, dependent care and telework

Recent school closures have also complicated matters for federal workers, as some agencies have told employees they can’t telework and care for their children at home at the same time.

For USDA employees who are impacted by coronavirus-related school closures, managers can make some exceptions, Censky said. USDA managers can change an employee’s work schedule and may alter start and end times or begin using compressed work schedules.

They can also authorize unscheduled annual leave or other time off, according to Censky’s guidance.

The department also urged managers to make additional flexibilities open for employees who have children, a parent or another dependent at home. But employees must account for any time spent caring for small children during the work day and should use paid or unpaid leave to make up the hours, USDA said.

“Telework is not a substitute for dependent care,” Censky said. “However, USDA’s telework directive does not preclude a teleworking employee from having a caregiver in the home who provides care to the dependent(s) while the employee teleworks. Also, a dependent may be permitted in the home provided they do not require constant supervision or care (i.e., older child or adolescent) and their presence does not disrupt the ability to telework effectively.”

For employees who are considered at “higher risk” for the coronavirus, USDA also offered some more instruction.

Employees should describe their high risk condition in writing to their supervisors, but they don’t need a doctor’s note, USDA said.

Employees at high risk for the coronavirus but are not telework eligible will receive weather and safety leave to stay home, the department said.