Administration’s reopening plans ‘unsafe’ for federal employees, senators say

This story was updated on Thursday, July 9, at 4:40 p.m. to include a comment from the Office of Personnel Management. 

The Trump administration’s reopening guidelines for federal agencies are “unsafe” for employees, Maryland and Virginia senators concluded Thursday.

In a letter to the acting directors of the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget, Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), along with Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.), urged the administration to issue new guidance that better protects the federal workforce and surrounding communities from the ongoing spread of coronavirus. 

“Your current guidance is endangering the health and safety of federal workers and everyone in our region,” the senators said. “And since 85% of federal employees work outside of our region, it endangers the entire country. We urge you to issue clearer guidance directing agencies to continue maximizing telework throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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An OPM spokesman said the agency had received the letter and “will respond to Congress as appropriate.”

OMB and OPM offered agencies a framework for reopening their offices and facilities to employees, contractors and the public back in April. It encouraged agencies to rely on state and local public health guidance first, before gradually bringing employees back to their work sites in phases.

Today, several agencies in the national capital region are in the beginning or middle stages of reopening their offices to employees.

The Agriculture Department brought 700 employees back to their offices in the national capital region under phase two of its reopening plan, which started June 22.

The Energy Department’s headquarters also entered the second phase of reopening at the end of last month.

The Environmental Protection Agency, OPM and others have entered various phases of their reopening plans as well. Many agency reopening plans encourage telework through at least phase two, but phase three policies are less clear.

OPM’s own plan does indicate agency leadership would consider reverting back to prior phases should the health conditions in the region begin to erode.

But the senators say their reopening conflicts with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, which encourage employers to keep teleworking as long as possible.

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“Federal employees and contractors have been teleworking successfully throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency, keeping vital services running and implementing economic relief programs and measures to stop the spread of COVID-19,” senators wrote. “Many workers in our area still lack access to regular child care due to COVID-19, and ordering these workers back into the office makes it needlessly harder for them to balance work and family obligations during the pandemic. The current guidance is encouraging agencies to end maximum telework prematurely.”

The senators also echoed the concerns of some federal employees, who are anxious about taking public transportation to get to work during the pandemic.

Some 40% of riders on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system during rush hour are federal employees. Crowds on Washington area trains and buses will only contribute to the spread of the virus, the senators said.

A Federal News Network survey found the vast majority of employees — some 85% of teleworkers and 52% of non-teleworkers — said they had some level of discomfort with returning to the office or having more of their coworkers join them at the work site.

Some expressed concern with taking public transportation to work, but more said they were worried about simply surrounding themselves with larger groups of people again.

Employees at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service were told July 6 was the earliest possible date the agency would enter “phase three” of its reopening plan, where the vast majority of the workforce is expected at the office.

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USDA hasn’t set a phase three date yet, but as employees have told Federal News Network, they’re still concerned about the agency’s plans for informing the workforce about positive coronavirus cases. They also worry the agency won’t grant their requests to continue telework and accommodate child and dependent care responsibilities.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents FNS employees at the national office in Alexandria, Virginia, appealed to the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee for help.

“For over three months, agency employees have been engaged in vital mission work, much of it directly related to assisting the American people in this time of unprecedented economic dislocation, while operating at 100% telework,” Daniel Cline, executive vice president of the NTEU local representing FNS employees, wrote in a letter to House lawmakers. “These employees have been lauded by agency leadership for tremendous success and customer service while working from home. Therefore, there is no clear reason to rush employees back into the office in an unsafe way.”

Agency reopening, in some spaces, has become highly debatable.

Members of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations offered vastly different opinions about the pace of agency reopening at a hearing late last month. Some members said agencies were moving far too slowly, while others said the employees were needlessly rushing to return.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), has asked 24 inspectors general to investigate their agencies’ reopening plans.

So far the inspectors general at EPA and OPM have said they’ll comply.