More agencies are entering “phase one” of their reopening plans in the coming weeks.
The Office of Personnel Management told employees last week that its facility in Washington, D.C., had entered “phase one” on June 8.
OPM facilities in other regions will enter phase one on Tuesday, an agency spokesman said. Most employees are expected to continue teleworking throughout much of the first phase.
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Monday is the earliest date in which FEMA employees may return to their facilities, the agency said, although most will continue to telework through at least July 15, the earliest possible date that “phase two” could begin.
“An email was sent to all FEMA staff about the agency’s guidance,” a spokeswoman said. “It contains a phased approach as a goal for the agency’s various locations. FEMA leadership is mindful of each location and taking different areas into consideration.”
And to help its leaders make reopening decisions, the Environmental Protection Agency has developed its own “facility status dashboard.”
The dashboard, which all employees have access to, is one of several tools EPA leaders are using to make decisions about how and when to reopen facilities, an agency spokeswoman said.
“The dashboard presents at-a-glance views of the gating criteria using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other expert data sources,” the agency spokeswoman said in an email to Federal News Network. “It contains maps, graphs and statistical breakouts for facilities and their surrounding commuting locations.”
EPA “scientific experts” developed the tool at the direction of Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the agency spokeswoman said.
Bloomberg Law first reported on EPA’s new facility status dashboard.
Though different facilities will reopen on their own schedules, all of them will follow a similar, phased approach.
“Once a facility is slated for reopening, it will be closed for seven days in accordance with the EPA- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joint guidance on cleaning and disinfecting to ensure that any potential virus is rendered inactive,” the EPA spokeswoman said. “After the seven-day period, each facility will be reassessed before it moves into phase one.”
At least six of 10 EPA regions have moved into this seven-day closure process, the agency said.
It’s unclear whether the new facility dashboard will be enough to sway the American Federation of Government Employees, which has called on the EPA to “place an immediate moratorium on reopening any regional office until the impacts of the COVID-I9 pandemic are more predictable.”
After the data showed increasing coronavirus cases in the region, EPA last week reversed course on plans to begin a phase one reopening for facilities in Boston and Dallas. But the agency may bring employees back to work at EPA’s region 3 and 5 offices later this month.
Region 3 is based out of Philadelphia and has offices there and in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
“The rush to reopen region 3 offices makes no sense,” Marie Owen Powell, president of the AFGE local representing EPA employees in the area, said late last week in a statement. “EPA employees for months have been effectively working from home, carrying out the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. There is no reason why telework cannot continue until either a vaccine or effective treatment is available.”
Some EPA employees in region 5, which has offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Westlake, Ohio, may return on or near June 22.
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“We cannot be hasty about this process,” Nicole Cantello, president of the AFGE local representing region 5 employees, said in a statement. “The office return plans we’ve been provided do not meet CDC guidelines to prevent virus transmission. More than 41 EPA employees had already been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of April, and one has died.”
The EPA, in contrast, said it has kept its unions informed throughout the pandemic and in the lead-up to facility reopenings, holding seven formal briefings with labor over the course of 11 weeks, the spokeswoman said.
“The unions have been regularly informed as the agency moves through its rolling reopening, and in fact, they know that we are encouraging employees to continue to telework, even in the first phases of reopening,” the EPA spokeswoman said. “Employees will continue to have maximum telework flexibilities and will not be forced to return to the office as EPA begins its measured and deliberate approach to reopening that ensures our employees’ health and safety.”
The reopening plans for EPA region 10 in Seattle have sparked some concern among lawmakers in Washington state, who wrote to the agency last week. They’re concerned EPA’s phased plan to reopen region 10 facilities doesn’t clearly account for employee safety.
Meanwhile, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee, has asked 24 inspectors general to investigate and assess agencies’ reopening plans.
Specifically, he wants the IGs to review agencies’ access to personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and workplace dividers, as well as their protocols for employees who test positive for the virus. He also called on the IGs to develop their own metrics for reviewing agency reopening plans.
“Millions of federal employees and contractors will be affected by the administration’s decisions to return federal employees to federal offices,” Connolly wrote. “Our federal workforce has demonstrated that it can continue to work effectively and serve this nation — even in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances. In return, federal management officials must employ the safest procedures in determining whether and when employees should return to their offices. We need to ensure that premature or misguided efforts to return to offices will not undercut efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and put federal employees and their families in danger. “