Agencies expand, loosen telework requirements amid coronavirus spread

This story was updated on Thursday, March 12, 2020 at 9:15 a.m. to reflect the differences between USCIS’ “remote work” program and its previously existing telework program. It also includes a statement from USCIS. 

More agencies are launching, expanding or loosening prior restrictions on telework, as COVID-19, the illness caused by the current strain of the coronavirus, reached a “pandemic” levels Wednesday.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will implement a nationwide “remote work program,” the agency said in a March 9 letter to the American Federation of Government Employees.

Though USCIS’ “remote work” announcement certainly coincides with growing concerns over COVID-19, the agency’s letter makes no mention of the coronavirus. The launch of a nationwide “remote work” program stems from the agency’s collective bargaining agreements with AFGE, Judy McLaughlin, chief of USCIS’ Labor and Employee Relations Division, said.

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“The agency is seeking to establish effective and efficient remote work arrangements to
support a more flexible and agile work environment without diminishing employee performance
or mission accomplishment,” McLaughlin’s letter reads. “The focus and purpose of this change is to establish protocols for effective and efficient remote work agreements as the agency moves toward building a more flexible work environment.”

USCIS management will determine who is eligible for remote work, McLaughlin added.

The agency already has a telework program, which requires employees to report to their regular work sites at least two days per pay period.

Under a “remote work” agreement, USCIS employees would work all or most of the time from a geographic location other than a “brick-and-mortar” facility provided the by agency, McLaughlin said. Employees would not have the requirement to report to their USCIS facilities at least two days a pay period.

“Efforts to implement a remote work program have been months in the making and the program is not final at this time,” a USCIS spokesman said Friday in an email.

As the coronavirus has spread, other agencies have continued to expand or loosen telework requirements in local federal facilities.

The Social Security Administration has reinstated telework and alternative work schedule conditions at select hearing and regional offices in Seattle, Washington, and New York, AFGE said in an email to Federal News Network.

Telework and alternative work schedules are back on at the SSA hearing offices in White Plains, New York, and Seattle. The same is true for several other SSA offices in Seattle, including the agency’s hearings operations regional office, the Office of General Counsel and Office of Quality Review, AFGE said.

The union said SSA hasn’t responded to its requests to reinstate telework at all SSA field and regional offices across the country. The agency implemented a wide variety of changes and cuts to its telework program earlier this month.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s New York division on Tuesday announced unscheduled telework and leave for employees at its New York City office, effective March 10 through March 23.

“We feel this is a prudent action to protect our workforce from unnecessary risk, and to support our local partners in minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” Pete Lopez, the New York regional EPA administrator, said in a message to employees. “Unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework may be used in conjunction with other leave, as appropriate. We are also reviewing non-essential travel.”

The EPA’s New York City office is still open, and employees are welcome to continue commuting to work, Lopez said. Some EPA employees will be expected to report to the facility anyway to maintain the building and equipment.

“Please work with your supervisor regarding your specific circumstances,” Lopez said. “If you have a telework agreement in place but do not have your laptop and other materials necessary for telework with you, please come into the office to retrieve them and meet with your supervisor before beginning unscheduled telework.”

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is urging all employees to prepare for the possibility of telework but isn’t directing it at this time.

Employees who aren’t currently on a telework plan can fill out a temporary agreement, the FDIC said Tuesday in an email to employees, which the National Treasury Employees Union published.

“Supervisors have been authorized to be flexible in approving telework requests for employees, including requests from employees who might not otherwise be eligible to participate in telework under current FDIC policy,” the agency’s email reads.

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 74% of its workforce have telework agreements, David Wright, the NRC commissioner, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday.

“We’re actively engaged on that issue,” Wright said of his agency’s telework program.

When it comes to telework, Congress is attempting to put more guardrails in place around agency programs.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), along with Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), have introduced the Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act. The bill would require agencies to set clear goals on telework participation and then report the cost-savings and other performance metrics.

Any widespread, across-the-board changes to agency telework programs must be justified to Congress.

The legislation already has a House companion, which Reps. Gerry Connolly and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) introduced last week.

“Thanks to years of implementation in the federal government, we know that telework increases productivity, boosts employee morale and saves taxpayer dollars,” Cardin said Wednesday in a statement. “Emergencies such as the coronavirus outbreak make it clear that workers also may need the option to work from home for safety purposes. We already have the technology to make expanded telework feasible. What we need is for federal agencies to move in the right direction, expanding telework options rather than contracting them.”

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