Updated: OPM eases up fingerprint collection, credentialing standards amid coronavirus concerns

This story was updated on Friday, March 27, 2020, with additional information on financial considerations for security clearance holders due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Office of Personnel Management has again found some more flexibilities for agencies trying to bring on new employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

Federal, state and local offices that collect fingerprints are closing across the country, creating challenges for agencies that need to meet the FBI requirements before onboarding new employees, Michael Rigas, OPM’s acting director, said Wednesday in a new memo.

Agencies that can continue to collect and process fingerprints should do so, said Rigas, who also serves as the acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

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But for those who can’t, agencies can choose to delay fingerprint collection and proceed with onboarding anyway — if the benefits of onboarding a new, mission-critical employee outweigh the potential risks.

Agencies who choose these procedures will delay reporting the final adjudication of a background investigation for these employees until they can collect and submit fingerprints.

Existing mechanisms for measuring the timeliness of adjudication compliance will continue; however, agencies will not be held accountable for adjudication reporting timeliness during the period this guidance is in effect,” Rigas said.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, which serves as the security clearance provider for much of government, will also defer the collection of fingerprints for the purposes of clearing new employees for secret or top secret work.

In addition, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center acknowledged the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic could create economic hardship for federal security clearance holders.

“It is imperative that we ensure trusted security clearance holders or applicants who may suffer financial hardship as a result of the virus are not unduly penalized because of circumstances beyond their control,” Bill Evanina, NCSC director, said earlier this week in a statement. “With the implementation of Trusted Workforce 2.0 and the incorporation of continuous evaluation, we are committed to our ‘whole person concept’ when vetting personnel for positions of trust.”

He pointed to provisions in a previous security executive agent directive, which allow agencies making security clearance and suitability determinations to consider financial circumstances outside an individual’s control, such as loss of employment, an economic downturn and an unexpected medical emergency, among other events.

Evanina said he will remind agencies of these “mitigating conditions.” The guidance applies to both existing security clearance holders and applicants in the middle of the background investigation process.

DCSA’s Consolidated Adjudications Facility said it too will take these financial considerations into account when vetting personnel for positions of trust.

The coronavirus is also challenging agencies and their ability to issue personal identity verification (PIV) credentials to new employees, OPM acknowledged.

During this public health crisis, agencies can choose to remotely check a new employee’s identity for the purposes of determining eligibility and granting PIV cards, Rigas said.

“Remote inspections will be an interim process, and any individuals that undergo the remote identity proofing process are required to undergo in-person identity-proofing when agencies return to full, in person capabilities,” Rigas said. “Agencies must be able to demonstrate, for audit purposes, that they have complied with identity-proofing requirements.”

It’s not easy to change or relax longstanding suitability and credentialing standards for federal employees and contractors. But OPM’s new procedures have approval from Rigas, who serves as the suitability and credentialing executive agent, and the director of national intelligence, the security executive agent.

OPM had previously urged agencies to remotely review onboarding documents and even issue the oath of office to new employees via Skype or FaceTime.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security has said it will ease up on Employee Eligibility Verification (Form I-9) requirements. To comply with these requirements under the Immigration and Nationality Act, agencies typically must review an employee’s identity and employment authorization documents in his or her physical presence.

But given the current circumstances, DHS will allow agencies to review employee documents remotely. These flexibilities only apply to employers who are operating remotely.

All of these procedures, including the DHS and DCSA exceptions, are meant to be temporary and only apply to the current public health crisis, OPM said.

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