USDA enters ‘phase one’ of employees gradually returning to DC area offices

The Agriculture Department began reopening its 12 facilities in the National Capital Region Monday, in accordance with “phase one” of its reentry plans.

Though USDA employees learned of the department’s “phase one” status on or around June 1, few employees returned to the office on Monday. 

“USDA started its phase 1 reopening in line with D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia, bringing all National Capital Region (NCR) political appointees back on June 1,” an agency spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network. “The rest of our NCR employees will come back gradually throughout the phases at the discretion of mission areas.”

Mission-area and office-level chiefs of staff have until Friday, June 5, to give the department an estimated number of employees who will return to USDA facilities in phases one and two, according to the department’s National Capital Region reopening summary, which Federal News Network obtained.

For phase one, this includes employees in customer-facing roles such as IT support, badging, facility security, and others responsible for preparing facilities for reopening, as well as those who can’t conduct their normal duties while teleworking.

Under phase two, administrators, chief operating officers and senior program managers, as well as any other employees “needed to carry out critical programs such as Farm Bill implementation, COVID-19 response and other high priority programs” will return.

Supervisors should give USDA employees at least seven days’ advanced notice before asking them to return to the office, though employees can return before then.

Most other USDA employees will continue to telework through phases one and two, including those at higher risk for coronavirus and those with child or dependent care responsibilities.

Up to 100% of USDA employees may return to work at Washington-area facilities during phase three. High-risk employees and others still wishing to telework must request a reasonable accommodation, according to the reopening summary.

The dates for USDA reopening under other phases are fluid.

“At this time, the department has no way to predict exact dates of when phase 2 or 3 will start and will continue to analyze the state and local conditions and update managers as more information is known on phase 2 and 3 dates as quickly as possible,” the reopening summary reads.

USDA expects employees to wear masks or face coverings through all three phases, particularly as they enter and exit the buildings, walk through the hallways and bathrooms, enter elevators and attend in-person meetings. The department anticipates providing about two to three masks to employees through USDA’s phased reopening.

“The department will provide cloth face coverings to all NCR employees until USDA reaches its 100 percent reopening status,” the reopening summary reads. “The face coverings will be available at each facility’s open entrances and can be washed up to 15 times. Employees who wish to use their own personal face covering or mask may do so.”

The department will not, however, conduct temperature checks of its employees, according to USDA reopening documents.

Mission-area leaders are supposed to report daily on confirmed or presumed positive coronavirus cases among their employees to USDA leadership. A SharePoint list will track active and recovered cases across the USDA workforce, according to a 10-page, “USDA National Capital Region Reopening Playbook” dated May 29, which Federal News Network reviewed.

“USDA recognizes that as employees come back to the office, they will want to be appraised of test positives in the building in which they are located and what the process will look like,” the reopening playbook reads. “The department is working on what that policy will look like and will update guidance as its available accordingly.”

New parking, cleaning procedures at USDA

As some USDA employees begin returning to their office spaces in the National Capital Region, USDA is opening up parking options for those who want to drive to work instead of using public transportation.

“The department anticipates being able to provide parking for onsite employees in phase 1 and phase 2,” USDA’s reopening playbook reads. “Additional information about parking for the NCR will be provided in advance of moving to Phase 3, though USDA does not anticipate parking will be available for all NCR employees. Employees are not required to drive and can use alternative modes of transportation.”

Many USDA employees rely on public transportation to get to work in Washington area, the department said.

But the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has reduced hours and trains are running every 15 to 20 minutes in the region. Nine stations on the orange and silver lines are closed for summer construction, and it’s unclear exactly when they’ll reopen.

According to USDA’s reopening playbook, all on-site employees should have access now to parking at their facilities and won’t need a pass.

USDA’s Whitten and South buildings, for example, have capacity for 588 employees to park, while the Patriots Plaza 3 facility has parking for 65 employees. The department’s facility at Thomas Circle has no parking spaces for employees, according to the playbook.

USDA leaders are evaluating how many employees may want parking under phase two of their reopening plans.

Both USDA’s reopening summary and playbook also describe in detail how often common spaces, elevators, bathrooms and shared office equipment will be cleaned.

In addition, USDA leadership is also reevaluating office floor plans and designs to better comply with social distancing guidance.

“Mission areas, agencies, and offices have begun to assess floor plans and desk spacing, especially for buildings with ‘open space’ designs or office space with modular furniture,” USDA said. “The department is assessing if additional barriers are needed for phase 3 reopening. Additional information will be provided in advance of moving to phase 3.”

Other USDA on-site services may operate under reduced or limited hours. On-site IT and personal identity verification (PIV) card support will operate under reduced hours until phase three, the reopening plans said.

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