OMB lays out new COVID health and safety guidelines for feds

office worker wearing a mask (FILEOPEN CREATION/ 

Federal agencies are under orders to rethink workspaces and employee and visitor activity to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Office of Management and Budget issued new safety principles Jan. 24 in a memo that implements an executive order requiring masks and physical distancing on federal land and by federal employees and contractors.

OMB is instructing agencies to continue to maximize the use of telework and to take other measures to implement safety measures like enhanced cleaning procedures for federal buildings, symptom screening for feds and contractors entering the workplace and the distribution of hand sanitizer pumps in offices.

"The Administration's paramount concern is the health and safety of all federal employees, on-site contractors, and individuals interacting with the Federal workforce," reads the memo, which Aviva Aron-Dine, the executive associate director for OMB, issued to agency heads yesterday.

Agencies covered by Chief Financial Officers Act have to submit workplace safety plans to the new "Safer Federal Workforce Task Force" established by President Joe Biden's order by Jan. 29. All agencies are also set to establish COVID-19 coordination teams to monitor safety compliance and establish on-site and remote working.

The new memo outlines safety principles, meant to establish a "minimum level for workplace safety standards," to guide agencies' planning.

It provides additional guidance on the mask mandate set. Masks with ventilation valves and face shields will not be adequate, according to the memo. Agencies aren't required to provide masks, but can provide them to workers and visitors. They also have the ability to require employees to wear non-medical masks provided by the agency.

Agencies are supposed to continue the maximum use of telework and give employees regularly working remotely advance notice before bringing them back to the office.

"As a general principle, every effort will be made to maximize the use of remote work during widespread community transmission," the memo reads. The memo also encourages agencies to use staggered scheduling or scheduling by cohort to reduce the number of employees in the office at one time.

Federal buildings are also to be capped at 25% of normal capacity during significant or high community transmission, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 tracker, the memo says, barring physical limitations or national security interests limiting that goal. Agency heads will have to approve instances where agencies cross that limit.

The memo also instructs pandemic teams in agencies to make staffing plans for what employees work in the office space full time, which ones sometimes work in the office space and which employees are fully remote. Potential visitors are also supposed to be limited as much as possible to virtual meetings.

For employees who do see the office again, distancing requirements may necessitate changes to the physical layout of spaces -- including one-way walkways and reorganized work spaces -- to accommodate six feet of distance between employees.

The OMB memo also directs agencies to review the safe occupancy levels of their elevators in light of the pandemic; given physical distancing requirements, "the use of stairs by those who are physically able is strongly encouraged," the memo says.

Other requirements in the memo include the sanitization of shared office equipment after use; the limiting of official travel to mission critical trips and the changing of ventilation and air filtration processes to increase the proportion of outdoor ventilation and decrease or eliminate the amount of air recirculation.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.


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