AFGE urges telework expansion amid coronavirus spread

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The American Federation of Government Employees is asking the Office of Personnel Management to extend telework to any federal employee capable of working remotely, in light of the spread of coronavirus.

Everett Kelley, who was sworn in as AFGE's national president earlier this week, asked OPM Director Dale Cabaniss to allow telework governmentwide, "regardless of any specific agency action that may have limited telework for other reasons."

As of March 6, there are three known cases of COVID-19 in the national capital region, which is the workplace of about 350,000 federal employees.

“The federal workforce has significant experience with telework, and it could be utilized much more extensively should the coronavirus crisis become more widespread," Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform told FCW in an emailed statement. "While the Trump Administration has rolled back telework options over the past few years, our committee has been exploring legislation to make telework more effective and efficient. Obviously, classified and other secure facilities will need to maintain a strong presence, and telework simply may not be an option for all of those programs, in which case our military and civilian agencies need to have robust plans in place to maintain continuity of operations at all times.”

Separately, a group of Senate Democrats urged Cabaniss to assure federal employees and contractors that they won't face any discipline or adverse employment actions for following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on when to stay home from work.

The senators, including capital-area members Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) urged Cabaniss in a March 6 letter to instruct agencies to "take a generous and public health-facing position on expanding telework availability before agencies need to implement their [continuity of operations] plans and approving unscheduled leave when federal employees and contractors are unable to work due to their own illness or that of a loved one."

The lawmakers also said that they are worried that "OPM's guidance to date does not demonstrate to our nation's hardworking public servants that the federal government is prioritizing their health, well-being and economic security."

OPM issued preliminary guidance for federal agency heads on March 3, reminding leaders that continuity of operation plans are required to provide for telework, that "as many employees as possible" should be telework ready and that any emergency plans "shall supersede" existing telework policies.

Telework, which flourished under the Obama administration, has been subject to new restrictions under President Donald Trump, and in some cases it has been rolled back as part of collective bargaining agreements. The Social Security Administration, the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior and component agencies at the Departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services have all seen telework agreements pared back in recent years.

A Government Accountability Office report from February 2017, based on data and responses from Obama-era telework policies, found that OPM needed to do more to validate telework data it received from agencies and that agencies lagged in revisiting eligibility for employees as telework programs matured.

Federal employees exposed to COVID-19

Separately, AFGE contacted the heads of the House and Senate Armed Services and general oversight committees to alert them to concerns about federal employees at Veterans Health Administration facilities, military bases and others who may have been exposed to coronavirus on the job.

Returning American travelers at high risk have been quarantined at military sites, and a VA facility in Palo Alto, Calif., is caring for a veteran with COVID-19.

In the letter to lawmakers, Kelley noted that while VA is tasked with taking a role in national health emergencies -- the agency's so-called fourth mission -- the Defense Department is not funded or staffed to participate in such crises.

"We are concerned not only about the diversion of resources and risk to the health of civilian and military employees, but also to their ability to carry out their national security mission as this health risk is introduced to the installations," Kelley wrote. In the letter he urged the help of lawmakers in securing meetings with DOD, VA and other agency leaders to make sure that federal employees are provided needed training and protective gear as needed.

At a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing earlier this week, the panel's chairman, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) urged senior leaders to "look carefully at how we prepare for an impending public health crisis."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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