OPM presses agencies to prep for telework in updated COVID-19 guidance

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The Office of Personnel Management is urging federal agencies to be prepared to offer telework to more employees amid the rapidly spreading coronavirus. OPM also is preparing for more questions on workplace rules and sick leave for feds whose children face school cancellation or who need to care for a stricken family member.

OPM Director Dale Cabaniss urged agency heads over the weekend to "ensure that written telework agreements are in place for as many employees as possible," and encouraged agencies to "sign situational (ad hoc) telework agreements with all telework eligible employees currently without a signed telework agreement."

The March 7 update also signaled to agencies to have IT systems and network ready "should the conditions from COVID-19 so warrant a federal office closure."

The guidance from OPM comes as the federal government looks at possible strategies to avoid spread of coronavirus in communities. On Fox News Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, raised the prospect of mitigation strategies that include controls on movement and gatherings in hard-hit parts of the U.S.

"I don't think it would be as draconian as nobody in and nobody out," Fauci said. "But there will be, if we continue to get cases like this, particularly at the community level, there will be what we call mitigation where you'll have to do essentially social distancing, keep people out of crowded places, take a look at seriousness, do you really need to travel? Those kinds of things."

OPM is prepping for a potentially massive uptick in telework as the Trump administration has pared back telework agreements across government, at the Social SecurityAgency, the Department of Agriculture and elsewhere. Last week, the American Federation of Government Employees and members of the House and Senate called on the administration to expand telework availability.

"One of the most overlooked aspects of telework is that it is a core part of continuity of operations planning," Jeffrey Neal, a former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, told FCW. "It is essential that agencies have robust telework policies in order to ensure their ability to operate during emergencies. The administration’s cutbacks in telework were shortsighted and apparently overlooked that aspect of telework. This appears to be an attempt to correct that."

In her guidance, Cabaniss noted that "successful incorporation of telework and 'social distancing' in [continuity of operations plans] and emergency planning will allow the federal government to continue functioning efficiently and effectively, while ensuring the health and safety of employees.

In a separate, more detailed document, OPM explored issues that could come to bear on federal employees who are quarantined or asked to self-isolate as the result of an exposure, and how caring for children experiencing school closure or relatives dealing with exposure might affect individual telework agreements. Some agencies bar teleworking alongside dependents to avoid employees splitting time between caregiving and work.

The OPM document indicates that agencies might offer some flexibility in an emergency situation such as the COVID-19 outbreak, but that feds would be expected to keep close track of their work and non-work hours.

Additionally, OPM explains the role of managers in assessing the health of employees, and privacy concerns with regard to letting feds know if they've been exposed to an infected colleague.

"If social distancing, information sharing, or other precautions to assist employees in recognizing symptoms or reducing the spread of the illness can be taken without disclosing information related to a specific employee, that is the preferred approach," the guidance states.

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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