Workforce

Agencies respond to White House telework guidance

shutterstock ID: 472129582 By fizkes 

In response to a late-Sunday-night memo from the Office of Management and Budget, federal agencies have begun cobbling together contingency plans for their employees to begin working remotely immediately.

There's still no centralized guidance for federal employees in the National Capitol Region, but many agencies contacted by FCW are making telework decisions for the near term.

The Department of Agriculture said that all National Capital Region area employees would begin teleworking on March 17 after an employee told USDA on March 15 that they had tested positive for coronavirus.

"That same day, USDA notified employees who work in close proximity to the employee that they should begin teleworking immediately to help ensure the safety and health of our employees. Access to the affected area of the facility has been closed off and the area is being sanitized and deep cleaned in accordance with CDC guidance," a USDA spokesman told FCW via email.

"USDA also announced on Sunday that maximized telework is available for NCR employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17."

USDA employees will telework until at least April 3.

Other agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Interior, all but mandated their employees to telework. Last week, the SEC began encouraging its headquarter employees in the strongest possible terms to work remotely as a precaution after an employee reported distressing respiratory symptoms and sought treatment.

As of March 16, there were 99 active cases of coronavirus in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. Some 250,000 federal employees work in Washington, D.C., in addition to thousands of contractors.

One source told FCW that all DOI employees with a telework agreement must now telework, and those who didn't have one or who weren't eligible were made to coordinate with their supervisors.

The Social Security Administration announced it would halt in-person service beginning March 17.

"This decision protects the population we serve—older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions -- and our employees during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," the agency said in a statement.

The Environmental Protection Agency told FCW that it had "authorized voluntary unscheduled leave and telework for all eligible employees across the nation," confirming an initial report that EPA Administration Andrew Wheeler was allowing most agency employees to telework beginning March 16 until at least April 4 in response to OMB's memo.

A Justice Department press officer told FCW that Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen had sent out a memo that would carry out OMB's guidance.

Others, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said they were taking proactive measures to test the infrastructure that would allow mass numbers of employees to telework and access internal networks all at once.

"Approximately 75% of NRC employees have telework agreements, which at the NRC is not mandatory," an NRC spokesman told FCW, noting that a March 13 systems test had allowed 2,500 people to access its system remotely in order to telework.

"Through recent modernization efforts, we have enhanced our capability to work remotely and effectively from any location with basic internet service."

The Defense Department said it was looking into granting telework eligibility even for those without such an agreement as part of its continuity of operations plan.

"Civilian personnel may telework even when a child or dependent requiring supervision is present at the alternative worksite. This policy is granted until Dec. 31, and encourages DoD Components to make similar adjustments to their policies," a spokesman said via email.

Other agencies, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, that have a large number of non-telework eligible employees said  they were encouraging those employees to take the safety precautions necessary to prevent potential exposure to COVID-19.

"When work isn't compatible with telework, we are evaluating whether to keep employees out of the workplace for safety reasons or whether we need to have them on duty helping veterans with appropriate safety precautions," a VA official said. 

Uncoordinated response

The federated, uncoordinated approach has drawn the ire of some on Capitol Hill.

In a March 16 letter, Sen. Chris Van Hollen said the guidance covering the National Capitol Region was insufficient and urged the administration to issue an executive order "directing agencies to use telework to the maximum extent practicable" for all federal workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Your order should direct federal agencies to allow all telework-eligible federal workers to telework full-time, unless there is a clear and compelling reason not to do so for the effective operation of government," the letter states. "You should also order federal agencies to evaluate whether non-telework-eligible employees can be telework-eligible, and to do so for all employees where there is not a clear and compelling reason that telework is not compatible with the performance of their job functions." Van Hollen was joined in the letter by 24 Democratic colleagues and two independents.

Though it has long been a point of labor-management disputes, federal sector unions have made agencies' teleworking policies a focal point in their advocacy for the federal workers they represent as the coronavirus has become a major concern for both federal workers and public health officials in recent weeks.

Frontline worker safety

Union leaders contend that agencies with high numbers of frontline workers -- such as airport screeners with the Transportation Security Agency, IRS call center workers and U.S. Postal Service workers -- are particularly vulnerable without specific guidance from their respective agencies.

A source at the Postal Service told FCW  there was no update to office staff about teleworking, but said that senior management was aware of the OMB and Office of Personnel Management guidance memos concerning telework eligibility.

The National Treasury Employees Union and American Federation of Government Employees, which collectively represent 850,000 federal employees, put out a call on March 16 for agency buildings with 50 or more workers to close, following the Center for Disease Control's recommendation that all gatherings be limited to 50 occupants or less for the next eight weeks.

"This is a chance for the government to lead by strictly following the advice of its own public health officials," NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a statement. "State and local officials and private companies are all ramping down, and the federal government -- where possible ­-- should do the same."

Mark Rockwell, Ross Wilkers and Adam Mazmanian contributed reporting to this article.

This article was updated March 16 with additional information.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a former staff writer and associate editor at FCW.

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