D.C. extends COVID vaccines to essential feds but worries continue for far-flung federal workforce
- By Natalie Alms
- Mar 16, 2021
Essential federal employees will be eligible for vaccines in the District of Columbia next month.
Employees are considered essential if they can't perform their job duties remotely or via telework and have to report to work in-person during the pandemic, according to guidance released by the District on Monday. The Phase 1C Tier 3 that covers them will open up the week of April 12. This week, employees at the Postal Service also became eligible in the district.
That expansion, however, won't include federal employees working in-person, but not in the city.
"More than 80% of federal employees live and work outside of the D.C. region," including many employees working in-person at the Internal Revenue Service, said Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
The IRS began to be call some employees back into the workplace since last summer, Reardon said on a press call on Tuesday. The phase-in included those who perform services that can't be done remotely, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said at a House Appropriations Committee hearing in February.
IRS officials have said that as of Jan. 30, approximately 27,500 IRS employees were going to work in-person either part- or full-time.
The department has had to balance "the need to plan for the future and the desire to maintain a safe operating environment," Rettig said in his written testimony. The IRS will "continue operating under its current posture until further notice."
Many of those employees that've been called back into the office work at large IRS campuses, Reardon said. The IRS hasn't provided help in vaccinating them, a step NTEU is pushing the department to take.
"Unfortunately, there was no plan ever put in place to ensure that federal employees at the IRS and other agencies were to get the vaccine," Reardon said. "If you're going to tell people to come to the workplace, you should be taking care of them and making sure they're safe. The only real way to do that is to get people vaccinated."
Reardon said that his understanding based on conversations with officials at the Treasury Department and IRS is that they're "working hard" and "trying to do what they can to get available vaccines for employees."
Within Treasury, agencies have identified how many employees should get vaccinated, but those doses aren't yet available, largely due to national shortages of vaccines, he said.
Some other agencies have gotten their own allocations of COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees, including the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs. The VA is also assisting in inoculating employees at the Department of Homeland Security. So far, 9,758 DHS employees have had completed vaccinations, according to the VA's COVID-19 dashboard.
Vaccines are the "biggest issue" for employees at Customs and Border Protections right now, said Rob Holland, chapter president of NTEU Chapter 173 in Detroit. "You can't do these jobs without coming into contact with coworkers or the traveling public."
Some House Democrats have also called on the federal government to allocate vaccines directly for federal workers in the National Capital Region. The group hasn't received any responses to the letter they sent to the Office of Personnel Management or the Centers for Disease Control, said an aide to Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.).
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) has also sponsored a bill that would require federal agencies to publish a safety plan, including their vaccination policies and options for high-risk employees to work remotely.
For IRS employees in the workplace, there are remaining concerns about safety onsite during the pandemic, Reardon said. The union is pushing the department to consistently enforce the mask mandate and provide more personal protective equipment to employees.
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.