With schools, day care and public transportation still closed or operating under reduced capacity, the Energy Department is rethinking its original “phase three” reopening plans for headquarters employees in the National Capital Region.
Under phase three, Energy will rescind all full-time telework agreements it provided at the beginning of the pandemic and employees will be expected to return to their headquarters offices.
The department will, however, work with all employees to set new telework agreements and flexible work schedules that are tailored to their individual circumstances, according to an Energy memo.
Energy employees can request full-time or expanded telework to accommodate child and dependent care responsibilities and their own health concerns, the department said.
Under its original reopening plan, Energy envisioned a return to “unrestricted staffing” and normal operations at headquarters at phase three. Employees were expected to return to office once they received word from their supervisors.
But now, the plan looks different.
“It is unlikely that local conditions in the national capital region will support a fully ‘back to normal’ phase 3 return to the workplace as originally envisioned in the HQ plan,” Steve Erhart, Energy’s chief human capital officer, and Ingrid Kolb, the department’s director of the Office of Management, said in a July 13 memo. “Logistical challenges in the NCR will likely mean that a substantial number of employees may need to continue to telework on a full or part-time basis until local conditions change.”
The memo, which was posted to Energy’s coronavirus “hub” earlier this week but has since been removed, is addressed to Chris Fall, the department’s COVID-19 coordinator, for the Energy secretary.
Energy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents some Energy headquarters employees, said it didn’t know when the department planned to more fully reopen its offices.
“Although the agency has taken steps to promote social distancing and improve cleaning protocols, we are still concerned that some workspaces need reconfiguring to increase the distance between employees,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Frontline employees at the Department of Energy appreciate the agency’s intent to provide flexibility and accommodate their personal or family situations during the pandemic, and NTEU stands ready to make sure employees’ needs are met and that new policies are implemented fairly.”
The union and department will begin formal negotiations next week on Energy’s phase three reopening plan, NTEU said.
Under Energy’s revised phase three reopening plan, headquarters employees can self certify they or a household member are high risk for coronavirus or have caregiving responsibilities.
“Management will take into account appropriate COVID-19-related challenges and concerns when establishing these new agreements,” the department said. “Supervisors are expected to be aware of
the individual circumstances for employees and continue to be sensitive to, and flexible with, employees’ personal situations.”
The department will review new telework agreements once a month as conditions in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area evolve, Energy said.
The July 13 memo details just how difficult — given the current circumstances with public transportation and schools in the region — resuming “normal” operations under Energy’s original phase three reopening plan will be.
The department, for example, said it was “extremely difficult” to predict when schools in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area would fully reopen. Fairfax and Arlington County public schools in Virginia have said they will provide up to two days of in-person instruction at most to students this fall. Other school systems are considering similar plans, Energy said.
Public transportation in the Washington region has yet to resume normal operations, and many Energy employees heavily rely on those services. At least 80% of employees who work out of Energy’s James V. Forrestal Building in downtown Washington use public transportation, the memo said.
And as public health officials learn more about the coronavirus, the Energy workforce may have more concerns about their own personal health now than they previously understood, the department said.
About 9% of the department’s 4,000 headquarters employees are age 65 or older, and 37% are over the age of 55, according to the July 13 memo. Some 16% of Energy employees had identified themselves as having a disability or a serious health condition before the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June added more categories of individuals who may be at higher risk for a severe illness due to coronavirus. Given the CDC guidance, more Energy employees and their family members may be particularly vulnerable to the virus, the department said.
“Since the CDC lists underlying medical conditions that make individuals more susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19, it may be advisable for vulnerable employees, or those with vulnerable cohabitants, to remain on telework in an abundance of caution,” Energy said.
The department’s existing reasonable accommodation process perhaps poses the most difficulty under the current circumstances. The current process itself can be lengthy, and employees with dependent care responsibilities or others in their household with health concerns aren’t necessarily eligible for a reasonable accommodation, Energy said.
“As headquarters progresses to phase 3, it is anticipated that a significant number of employees with health concerns will request 100% telework as a reasonable accommodation when directed to return to the office,” the department said.
Energy has been among several agencies to bring employees back to their offices in the national capital region over the last two months. The department first brought back a small group of headquarters employees back to their offices under phase one of their reopening plan on June 8. A second wave of employees returned under “phase two” back on June 29.
But the prospect of phase three has posed uncertainty and anxiety for some federal employees in the Washington region.
Energy acknowledged as much in its correspondence to department leaders.
“In anticipation of requests from the workforce of reasonable accommodation, expected to include general feelings of depression or anxiety upon phase three reentry (e.g., do not feel safe in the office
or commuting to the office), which is a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities
Act, additional flexibilities to the telework agreement are needed,” Energy said.
Union negotiations would be “challenging, contentious and lengthy” if Energy began phase three of its reopening plan without opening up additional flexibilities and logistical and health concerns continued in the National Capital Region, the department said.