Workforce

Workforce panel explains new COVID testing requirements

covid-19 Test kit (Cryptographer/Shutterstock.com) 

Safer Federal Workforce, the White House-led group charged with giving agencies ongoing guidance on government operations during the pandemic, released more details on Wednesday about testing requirements for unvaccinated federal employees and onsite contractors.

Under that policy, feds and onsite contractors will have to self-attest to their vaccination status, and agencies must establish a testing program for their unvaccinated employees, a category that includes anyone who doesn't provide their status.

Unvaccinated feds and onsite contractors coming into the office have to be tested at least once a week, but how often others are tested may differ for employees with different jobs or worksites.

Agencies should consider "workplace characteristics, availability of testing, cost, and level of community transmission, among other factors" as they determine how often testing needs to occur, the guidance says. Generally, though, it shouldn't have to happen more than twice a week.

Once employees are tested, they won't be limited in their ability to come into work unless they have COVID-19 symptoms or have encountered someone sick with the virus.

How agencies set up their testing programs can vary. They can contract with a third-party provider, do testing in-house or even use an interagency agreement with an agency that has testing capabilities or a multiagency contract.

Agencies can use any COVID-19 test authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. They can also use pooled testing, which combines samples from different people and tests them together. A positive result in a pooled test leads to a retest of each individual sample.

Who gets tested

Employees not coming into the office in any given week won't need to be tested. For employees only working onsite sometimes, they'll only need to be tested during the weeks that they are going into the office.

Agencies can't require unvaccinated feds to work remotely solely because of their vaccination status, and therefore avoid the testing requirements altogether, the guidance clarifies.

The guidance also affirms the policy that agencies must pay for the cost of testing.

If the government is requiring an employee to get tested, the time it takes to do so, including travel time, is duty time. Agencies should largely only authorize an hour or less for the entire undertaking, the guidance says.

This doesn't include anyone wanting to get tested during work hours, but not required to do so by the agency. Anyone in this category will have to use sick time or other paid time off.

Employees should be tested during their normal work hours, and if it happens outside of those for "unforeseen circumstances," that time will be subject to normal overtime rules, the guidance says.

Travel costs incurred getting the test will be handled the same as local travel or temporary duty cost reimbursements.

The new guidance also gives details on noncompliance, which can include adverse actions.

Agencies should have a way to handle anyone that doesn't get tested regularly, like restricting worksite access for an employee who missed a testing appointment and hasn't gotten tested within the agency's timeframe, the FAQ says.

Finally, although agencies have to pay for testing for anyone exposed to the virus at work or required to be tested for official travel, employees potentially exposed outside of work must pay for their own testing.

The new guidance also reaffirms previously released policies about bargaining obligations and offers details about what relevant laws and guidance cover privacy concerns for testing data. It also instructs agencies to follow the process of reviewing the reason as potentially meriting a reasonable accommodations for any feds who raise a disability or religious reason for not being tested.

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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