Workforce

Are federal facilities prepared for COVID-19?

IRS building, Washington DC shutterstock ID: 395325124 by  Rob Crandall 

The U.S. government is still requiring tens of thousands of employees to report for work at federal buildings amid the raging coronavirus pandemic. Some federal jobs can only be done in-person, while sensitive and classified jobs are not telework-ready. Agencies have responded by expanding telework opportunities, but former officials and unions representing federal workers are becoming increasingly concerned about whether it’s possible to protect those workspaces from contamination or exposure to the virus.

The Office of Management and Budget released guidance March 15 recommending agencies to implement "maximum" telework flexibility where possible, and press reports indicate that OMB is urging agencies to extend telework.

There's no central authority that can mandate telework across the federal enterprise. Some in Congress are urging an executive order from President Donald Trump to direct "agencies to use telework to the maximum extent practicable."

The primary agency charged with ensuring the safety of federal buildings is the Federal Protective Service at the Department of Homeland Security. However, that organization has traditionally focused on protecting buildings and employees from physical threats like acts of terrorism, criminal actors, bomb threats, suspicious mail and other hazards.

That role may change over the coming weeks and months as FPS and its contracting workforce operate as the first line of defense, screening visitors and minimizing exposure at entry points for many federal buildings across the country.

Agency officials insist they are focused on responding to the outbreak, but their communications to federal employees and the public has been muted thus far. They are mentioned as a contributing agency to a memo put out by the Office of Personnel Management March 3 that includes preliminary guidance on how to process visitors to federal office buildings, but only to say that they will work with the Facilities Security Committee and/or Designated Official in each federal facility "to implement and enforce any new requirements as necessary."

FPS declined multiple requests for an interview to discuss what new protections or protocols have been put in place, how it is overseeing contractor compliance and what sort of internal expertise the agency has for securing federal buildings from an epidemic or pandemic.

In response to emailed questions, the agency sent a statement attributed to Scott Jones, director of operations, saying it was coordinating with a number of federal and non-federal entities to respond to the outbreak.

"The Federal Protective Service is supporting the planning and response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak in accordance with the guidance provided by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the General Services Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Personnel Management, and the specific agencies located in FPS-protected facilities," said Jones. "The agency is working closely with local emergency response and health officials throughout the country, along with facility security committees, Federal Executive Boards, and specific tenant agency leaders to implement localized best practices to mitigate and minimize the risk exposure of facility visitors and occupants, while maximizing the protection of our own officers and protective security officers."

FPS has undergone a number of reorganizations over the past 20 years that have placed it under different leadership: from GSA to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2002, from ICE to the National Programs and Protection Directorate in 2009 and from the newly created Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to the DHS Management Directorate in 2019. Despite bouncing around government, agency leadership has remained steady -- FPS Director L. Eric Patterson has been in place since 2010

"They're really not set up to handle much more than overseeing the contract guard forces at federal facilities, so the notion that they would be trained or prepared for an additional role would be concerning, because I don't think they have that capacity," said Chris Cummiskey, former DHS undersecretary for management. "No. 2, they're really not set up and trained in what I think they would need based on what we saw with [previous] H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks."

The agency is also dealing with a serious issue paying its contracting workforce on time. While FPS employs approximately 1,000 security officers and an additional 400 support staff, the bulk of federal building security is carried out by more than 14,000 security contractors.

A letter sent to Patterson last week by House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and obtained by FCW expresses concern about 157 outstanding invoices from security contractors totaling more than $74 million that are more than 15 days overdue.

"The safety and security of federal buildings and workers is the highest priority for FPS… Delays in paying these officers not only harms the agency's reputation, it erodes the public and private partnerships on which FPS depends," Thompson wrote.

The letter, dated March 9, does not address whether any protections have been put in place during the coronavirus outbreak, but a spokesperson told FCW the committee also reached out to the agency last week for more information on the subject.

Further complicating matters, former DHS officials and government contracting experts say the work requirements in the contracts FPS has in place with many security organizations are often scoped tightly to specify what activities are and are not covered, leaving limited flexibility to change operations on the fly in response to emerging threats like COVID-19.

Security contractors for FPS "are very precise about what they will or won't do, and if you go to them and say, 'We want you to do some additional screening for coronavirus at the entrance to federal building,' No. 1, you have hundreds of contracts to contend with, and No, 2, the reality of them accepting an additional requirement that isn't in their present contract is probably remote," said Cummiskey.

Some alterations, like bumping up the number of contractually obligated guards at a particular facility in response to a heightened threat profile, are fairly easy. Others, such as requiring uniformed guards to wear protective gear or act as medical first responders to a confirmed infection would be substantially harder to implement.

"These contracts are pretty definitive about the work, the nature of the work, the qualifications of the individuals and others," Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council, an industry group representing government contractors, told FCW. "As you begin to change the nature of the work, there's no bright-line test. For everything there's a grey area and [questions about] how close are you to what the scope of work rules are?"

Security contractors and the federal government have an incentive to meet the threat, and that shared reality can often lead to closer cooperation on critical security matters.

"It's not like there's going to be a big knock-down drag-out fight," Chvotkin said. "I think what you'll find is most of the companies going out of their way to accommodate the changing circumstances."

Federal employees -- and the groups that represent them -- are increasingly expressing concern about the safety of their workplaces. Since the outbreak started, a number of agencies have reported suspected or confirmed cases among their employees, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Social Security Administration.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers across 33 federal agencies, has put out fliers calling for all government buildings with more than 50 employees to be closed and for agencies to move all eligible federal employees to fulltime telework while waiving reporting requirements and other barriers.

In another statement, the American Federation of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees, National Association of Government Employees, National Nurses United and the Service Employees International Union all said they were "deeply dismayed by the lack of preparations, planning and communications" for workers in the Veterans Health Administration system managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Milly Rodriguez, an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist for AFGE’s national office, told FCW that her organization has been reaching out to the local branches and bargaining councils at agencies to get a sense of what they are being told by agency leaders about new protections or protocols put in place since the outbreak.

"The overall response … is they have gotten very little information,” Rodriguez said.

Right now, there’s little in the way of guidance for those workers who cannot do their work remotely. Some frontline federal employees, such as airport security screeners and VA health-care workers, must constantly interact with members of the public. When federal employees have asked for guidance on how to minimize exposure during those interactions, they are often directed to pre-existing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OMB's telework memo.

"These are folks who have contact with the public … they don’t have any direction on really just how to deal with the incoming public," Rodriguez said. "Many of the folks that would typically come in are usually part of vulnerable populations already, [and] they have no way of knowing who may be affected. There is a real fear of what to do as people come in and they have gotten very little guidance."

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