WORKFORCE

CFPB mandates telework

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Agencies are setting aside the usual parameters governing telework and allowing employees to work remotely wherever possible in light of the rapid spread of COVID-19.

The Consumer Federal Protection Bureau has become the first federal agency to mandate its workers to telework regardless of previous arrangements.

CFPB Director Kathleen Kraninger sent out an email on the evening March 17 to all Bureau employees that stated that a prior telework arrangement that mandated Washington, D.C. and New York regional state employees to work remotely due to coronavirus concerns would now apply to all employees across the Bureau, regardless of location.

"Starting Wednesday, March 18, the mandatory telework policy I first implemented for HQ and New York Regional Office staff will apply to all CFPB employees, regardless of work location," Kraninger wrote.

"I am also extending the timeframe for mandatory telework through Friday, April 3."

Kraninger also authorized those who couldn't telework due to disruptions in childcare, school closures or caring for an afflicted relative to take up to 20 hours of administrative leave pay per pay period.

The Office of Management and Budget issued a memo March 15 on telework flexibility, and the Office of Personnel Management's current operating status as of March 17 calls for maximum telework.

OPM confirmed to FCW that its guidance applied nationwide, and not just to D.C.-area employees, but while OMB and OPM can issue guidance, they cannot require agencies to follow them.

Ad hoc telework

FCW obtained the Department of Interior's plan to address the coronavirus, which listed requirements for employees looking to telework. Ordinarily, staff who take advantage of DOI's telework policy are required to work from their area office at least two days per pay period.

"A public health emergency, such as COVID-19, is an example of a rare, short-term situation that would temporarily exempt employees in a directly affected area from reporting to the official duty station twice a pay period," DOI's human resources flexibility guide stated.

"Under the current telework policy, supervisors are only permitted to telework situationally or in ad-hoc situations. However, a public health emergency, such as COVID-19 would qualify as an ad-hoc circumstance wherein supervisors may be permitted to telework for an extended, temporary period as approved by their manager."

A source at DOI told FCW on March 16 that according to the deputy secretary, all Washington, D.C.-area employees with telework agreements were being ordered to work remotely, while those without agreements or who weren't eligible were coordinating with their managers to do so.

Some agencies, like the Department of Labor, were ordering staff in their D.C. offices to telework, but leaving it up to the discretion of field offices to decide how to act.

"Regional offices are implementing telework with approval as needed," a Labor spokesman told FCW.

Other agencies, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were urging all employees to telework as of March 17.

"FEMA is maximizing all workplace flexibilities available to protect the workforce. Effective March 17, FEMA is encouraging all employees to utilize telework capabilities, hold necessary meetings virtually and limit time at work to what is necessary," an agency spokesman told FCW via email, adding that the policy applied to FEMA employees nationwide.

The Federal Aviation Administration was reluctant to issue a blanket telework order to office staff, despite multiple employees testing positive for COVID-19, including at least one in the Washington, D.C. headquarters.

"Even with positive cases in our workplaces, our collective level of risk remains in line with the level of risk for all Americans," agency leadership told employees in a March 16 all-staff email.

An agency source told FCW on March 16 that the official guidance is that employees are expected to report to work unless they are older or have underlying health issues, but that some senior managers are extending telework under their own authority.

The agency is reportedly testing mass telework March 18 to gauge its network capacity to support remote work for employees who are not required to staff a specific duty station – such as air traffic controllers stationed onsite at airports.

Frontline risks

Telework has become a point of contention for government union advocates, who have repeatedly pointed out that not all government employees can telework due to agency policies or because the nature of their work.

Agencies like Customs and Border Protection have differing policies for workers depending on how much they interact with the general public where the risk of exposure to coronavirus is high.

FCW obtained CBP's Job Hazard Analysis & Personal Protective Equipment Assessment, which applies to all CPB offices. The document ranks the risks of exposure and measures to be taken for each CPB office, from headquarters to port-of-entry points.

For workers in headquarters offices, CPB facilities, mission support, office settings or other administrative settings, the category risk for exposure was "low" and personnel were encouraged to report any adverse symptoms and take note to stay up to date on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For others, like Border Patrol agents at ports-of-entry charged with handling incoming travelers and those responsible for cleaning such facilities, the risk ranged from medium to very high, depending on how closely staff expected to interact with the public.

Those with medium to high risks of exposure were encouraged to adopt procedures such as donning N95 respiratory masks, wearing nitrile gloves, staying at least six feet apart from others, keeping up with relevant health advisories and using vehicles that partition drivers and passengers when transporting symptomatic people.

Adam Mazmanian contributed reporting to this article.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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