Passport services union presses State Dept. for more leave flexibility amid COVID-19 outbreaks

The National Federation of Federal Employees warns rising cases of the COVID-19 delta variant has led to “alarming outbreaks” at passport agencies in San Di...

The National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, which represents passport services employees, is asking the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs for more flexibility in taking COVID-19 administrative leave following COVID outbreaks at several passport agencies.

NFFE Local 1998 President Lee Wentz, in a memo sent Monday, told Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt that rising cases of the COVID-19 delta variant has led to “alarming outbreaks” at passport agencies in San Diego and Miami, as well as a printing center in Arkansas.

Wentz, in an interview last month, said the department’s understaffing of passport services and the inability for employees to telework during the pandemic has made it difficult to chip away at a backlog of passport applications.

“The spiking positive cases within these agencies has caused great unease and is disturbing for these employees who do not have access to remote or teleworking options,” Wentz said.

Wentz said the current backlog of passport applications is forcing some passport agencies to require mandatory overtime, increasing the risk of COVID transmission by requiring employees to work in close quarters with each other. Many employees, he added, have children or high-risk dependents that are not eligible for vaccination.

In response to this surge in cases, Wentz is asking the department to allow more flexible approval for COVID-19 administrative leave and authorize Weather and Safety Leave for passport services employees in areas that have a substantial or high risk of COVID transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The union is asking the State Department to provide Weather and Safety Leave for impacted employees, at least until the department can implement the vaccine attestation and weekly COVID testing for unvaccinated employees, as mandated by the Biden administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

“Passport Services employees need more support to maintain the continuity of the mission throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic. By implementing these recommendations, the Department will show support for its employees when they need it most during a period of tremendous pressure,” Wentz said.

Wentz is also calling on the department to provide “immediate deep cleaning,” in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, at agencies where employees with a confirmed positive case of COVID was present for at least 15 minutes.

NFFE Local 1998 is asking the department to give all passport services employees 15 minutes each day to clean their workstations “in order to promote and maintain a safe and healthy work environment.”

State Department employees took more than 8,000 hours of emergency paid leave, as authorized under the American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March — less than 1% of the leave granted to the entire federal workforce.

The department, according to data collected by the Office of Personnel Management, ranks 17th in terms of agencies taking the most COVID leave. But the department comes nowhere close to the amount of leave taken by the Postal Service, which accounts for 87% of the COVID paid leave hours taken by the federal workforce, and ranks as the top agency that has taken this leave.

The department under the Trump administration deemed passport services personnel as mission-critical in June 2020, and reopened nearly a dozen agencies across the country that month to tackle a backlog that came close to 2 million passport applications.

NFFE Local 1998 claims passport services have kept staffing above 25% of its capacity, but warns its members are struggling to dig out from the workload because of staffing shortages, combined with a renewed demand for international travel.

With the backlog once again approaching 2 million pending applications, Arndt told reporters in July that the department is taking up to 18 weeks to process routine passport applications, and up to 12 weeks to handle expedited applications. Under both tracks, the department is allowing up to six weeks for mailing.

Arndt said individuals who submit a passport application now won’t get a new passport until “well into the fall,” and that people without passports looking to travel overseas this summer, “may need to make alternate travel plans.” To avoid any potential conflicts, Arndt encouraged individuals to apply or renew their passports at least six months ahead of time.

Despite the union’s repeated calls for telework to ensure continuity of operations, the department maintains that telework isn’t an option for passport services, because the work requires connectivity to systems and databases that are only accessible within department facilities.

“The core functions of passport issuance do not have the technological support to allow for remote or telework options. Due to this, passport employees must be physically present and engage with the public to support and achieve the Department of State’s mission,” Wentz said.

House lawmakers last month reintroduced the Bipartisan Passport Backlog Elimination Act, which would require Secretary of State Antony Blinken to submit a plan to Congress on how the department can eliminate the passport backlog within 30 days of the legislation passing.

After submitting the plan to Congress, the department would have 30 days to reduce processing times to 6-8 weeks for standard applications and 2-3 weeks for expedited applications.

The bill would also require the State Department inspector general to audit the effectiveness of the plan to eliminate the backlog.

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