Interior, Energy and EPA have more reopening details for employees

More agencies are beginning to describe just how they plan to approach reopening their federal facilities amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Most reopening plans are consistent with the three phases outlined in the guidance the Trump administration gave to agencies back in April.

The Energy Department, perhaps, has one of the more detailed reopening plans for its employees.

The plans, dated May 18, detail three phases to gradually recall employees back to their offices. Energy’s reopening framework describes the broad principles the department will use to make reopening decisions.

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“As much as possible, telework will continue to be used during the COVID-19 pandemic to mitigate risk, especially for vulnerable individuals,” the framework said.

“Strategies adopted during the pandemic will continue to be used to modernize DoE operations, including the greater use of technology to maximize efficiency, as appropriate,” the plan continues.

Energy headquarters and facilities in the national capital region are in “phase zero,” according to the plans. During this phase, Energy managers should recommend the number of employees and support service contractors who should return to headquarters facilities in each phase. The department will also develop standard guidance and training webinars for managers who will facilitate reopening, according to Energy’s headquarters plan.

The department will also establish screening procedures for employees, visitors and contractors to enter Energy facilities. Those who have coronavirus symptoms won’t be allowed to enter the building, according to the department.

“Returning personnel will receive communications advising that they may not enter the workplace if they have flu-like symptoms, including a temperature over 100.4 degrees,” the headquarters plan reads. “Notices to this effect will be posted outside all HQ building entrances.”

Energy employees may wear face coverings in the office, but it’s not a requirement, according to the department’s headquarters guidance. The department will provide masks at facility entrances to those who want one.

In addition, the department is working to acquire hand sanitizer stations for its entrances and other high-traffic areas. It may, according to the guidance, install other touch-less equipment such as soap dispensers, faucets and paper towel dispensers, especially at the Energy facility in Germantown, Maryland.

Office spaces at Energy headquarters may also look different.

“Open workspaces that do not allow at least six feet between employees may require that employees work onsite in shifts (telework/onsite), if possible, to allow for social distancing, or may require other mitigation strategies,” the guidance reads. “Walk-up services will require the installation of sneeze shields and/or other appropriate safety barriers. This effort has already been initiated at HQ for security entrances and will be implemented as appropriate before each building service is reopened. Safety barriers will also be evaluated for use in the reception area of office suites.”

Cafeterias and gyms will remain closed at Energy facilities through phase three. Child care centers will also reopen at phase three, according to the department’s guidance.

In addition, the department has launched a hotline for employees to report confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus across the agency.

The Agriculture Department has an app for employees to report to confirmed or presumed coronavirus cases, according to a May 22 email sent to USDA employees, which Federal News Network obtained.

USDA released its own reopening playbook to employees last week.

Interior Department

The Interior Department’s Office of Management and Budget has approved bureau-level reopening plans.

“At the state and local level, our progression toward regular operations will appropriately vary, and the pace of our own actions will be guided by the pace of governors and public health officials,” Scott Cameron, acting assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said in a May 22 memo to Interior employees. “Each bureau’s plan phases in regular operations at our offices/duty locations and increases access to our public lands. As always, the department’s ability to carry out its mission and prioritize the safety of its workforce remains paramount in our decision making.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has visited several department facilities and sites in recent weeks.

“I witnessed the significant measures you have taken to keep an overwhelming majority of our public lands accessible to the public throughout this pandemic,” he said in a May 22 message to employees. “The visits have also provided me a more informed perspective on the challenges we face as we move into recovery. What has been clear is the creativity and the dedication many of you have brought to addressing this challenge.”

Supervisors may continue to encourage telework, and employees who are considered at high risk for coronavirus can continue remote work until their office or duty station returns to a normal operating status, Cameron said.

If necessary, supervisors should work with their colleagues to establish flexible working schedules, where employees are expected to complete 80 hours of work per pay period.

“Supervisors should ensure all telework eligible employees are telework-ready within seven days of the date of this memorandum,” Cameron said. “Any employee who is deemed telework eligible must discontinue the use of weather and safety leave within seven days of this memo unless written concurrence is received from the bureau’s deputy director.”

Weather and safety leave will no longer be an option for employees whose offices have entered “phase two” of their reopening plan, unless the employee is high risk.

Interior employees who have child or dependent caregiving responsibilities may receive up to 20 hours of excused absences per pay period to the extent they can’t telework and schools are still closed, according to the department.

And hazardous duty pay is no longer an option for employees whose offices have entered “phase one” of their reopening plans, the memo said.

Environmental Protection Agency

EPA facilities in three regions will soon begin to enter “phase one” of the agency’s reopening plan, Administrator Andrew Wheeler told employees in an email last week.

According to the email, EPA closed its facilities in Lenexa, Kansas, Atlanta and Seattle last week. E&E News first reported EPA’s reopening plans.

“We are doing this because the coronavirus is rendered inactive after seven days,” Wheeler said. “In addition, these closures are being conducted as outlined in the EPA/CDC Cleaning and Disinfectant Guidance. The next step would be for these locations to enter phase one after a second review of the data.”

“Maximum telework” will be in place for EPA employees through phase two, while flexible work schedules and altered core hours will extend through phase one, Wheeler told employees. EPA employees with dependent care responsibilities or those who are at high risk for coronavirus can continue remote work through phase two.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 7,500 EPA employees, was highly critical of the agency’s intentions to begin reopening at some facilities.

“Preparations to reopen these offices are apparently already underway, though employees were not informed until the day the process began,” Gary Morton, president of AFGE Council 238, said Friday in a letter to Wheeler. “Suddenly, EPA workers are on the path to be ordered back into offices — without the promised participation in the agency plan, without inclusion of employee views and without any documented justification.”

EPA said it last briefed the union about its plans on Friday, an agency spokesman said. Briefings on the pandemic between the union and the agency began March 10, according to EPA.

“EPA’s plan for an eventual phased return to agency offices will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures our employees’ health and safety,” a spokesman said in an email to Federal News Network. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, EPA has held seven formal briefings with its unions to discuss the agency’s status and plans for reopening. The unions will continue to be regularly informed as the agency moves through its rolling reopening; however, the administrator talks directly to the employees and does not need to speak through the unions. The agency will fulfill any bargaining obligations required by law.”