Governors warn Trump administration not to reopen federal offices too soon

Top leaders in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are urging the Trump administration to keep existing telework policies in place as they continue their efforts to contain the coronavirus in the national capital region.

In a letter, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser urge the Trump administration to make “appropriate judgments” on a “telework posture is reflective of our own local operating statuses.”

“While of course any essential employee should continue to report to work, we know that a continued federal telework policy will help save lives by allowing more of our region’s 360,000 federal employees to work from home,” the letter reads.

The letter is addressed to Michael Rigas, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management and acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

It mentions the president’s national “reopening” guidelines, which the administration released last week. It doesn’t specifically mention the guidance OPM and OMB released on Monday, which gave agency leaders a framework to help them decide when and how to reopen federal offices and resume “normal operations” during the pandemic.

The guidance outlined several phases, including a “gating period” where agency leaders should first follow the lead of their local or regional state authorities to determine whether it’s safe to begin reopening the local economy. Once the initial gating period ends, agencies could begin to lift mandatory and then maximum telework requirements.

A stay-at-home order is in place in the District through May 15. Virginia residents are under a stay-at-home order through June 10, while Maryland’s order doesn’t have an end date.

The guidance does, however, give agency leaders many considerations to weigh in choosing to reopen federal offices and call employees back to their desks. Agencies are supposed to balance school closures, mass transit availability and health conditions on the ground, among several other factors.

They’re also supposed to coordinate, if they can, with other regional agency leaders and OPM.

There’s a well-practiced system for OPM to make weather calls for the national capital region during a snow storm or hurricane, for example. The agency usually coordinates with weather experts, transit authorities, local government officials and others to make a decision in that scenario, but the protocol has been less clear during the current pandemic.

“We encourage the administration to help ensure the safety of the federal workforce and our residents as we work together to fight this pandemic,” the governors and mayor wrote. “Failure to do so could lead to a rise in cases and delay our ability to re-open the region.”

The letter from national capital region governors comes as the American Federation of Government Employees on Thursday offered a much more critical view of the administration’s reopening guidance.

“I must strongly rebuke the administration for publishing a set of guidelines that is both premature and imprudent,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national president, said in a letter to both Rigas and acting OMB Director Russell Vought. “These guidelines would, if implemented too soon, worsen the crisis, and unnecessarily expose millions of Americans to illness and potentially, to death.”

OPM on Thursday issued more guidance on reopening federal offices. The guidance mostly reminded agencies of their authority to adjust telework schedules and policies based on local and evolving conditions.

“Agency management should never dismiss the health concerns of employees,” the guidance reads. “Some employees may have reservations about returning to their workplace even as the likelihood of contracting coronavirus diminishes. It is appropriate for agencies to work with labor unions and employees to address such concerns even after agency management has determined that it is safe for employees to return.”

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