White House lays out plans to open agencies, move off telework

In a new document, the federal government explains plans to align a reopening of all federal agency functions and a return to in-person work with national guidelines promulgated by the White House and health officials on bringing back a state of normalcy when a decline in the COVID-19 pandemic occurs.

coronavirus molecule (creativeneko/Shutterstock.com)
 

The White House announced a framework for reopening federal workplaces to jibe with an April 16 news briefing in which President Donald Trump said plans to "reopen America" were imminent.

The Offices of Management and Budget and Personnel Management announced the plan in a joint memorandum issued April 20.

"The immediate response to COVID-19 included a calibrated re-alignment of various Federal activities and operations around the country, and operational shifts such as a dramatic surge in Federal workforce telework," Acting OMB Director Russell Vought and Acting OPM Director Michael Rigas wrote.

"Now, in partnership with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and the private sector, the Federal government is actively planning to ramp back up government operations to the maximum extent possible, as local conditions warrant, consistent with the National guidelines for Opening Up America."

Four days earlier, the national coronavirus task force had outlined a slideshow presentation rolling out a plan that would begin to allow the healthiest members of the U.S. population to slowly return to work while encouraging social distancing or isolation for more vulnerable people. Other members and workplace sectors would be able to gradually return to normal operations if there were no signs of growth in new cases. There were no specific dates associated with these targets.

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the United States has recorded more than 778,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 41,500 fatalities as of April 20.

The memo stipulated that "phased reopening" for some workplaces would be allowed provided that they met three criteria: the number of illnesses with coronavirus-like or flu-like symptoms in the area trended downward for 14 days or more; the number of positive COVID-19 cases and positive tests trended downward for 14 days or more; and that local hospitals had the means to treat all patients, including those without COVID, as well as the means and plans in place to test its health care workers.

Agencies are being told to tailor plans for their own workforce to their geographic location, worker health and demographics, facilities, available resources and occupation.

The memo encouraged agencies to continue extending maximum telework capabilities to all eligible employees until optimal operations were possible and urged agencies to consider granting certain employees alternative work schedules as part of their new regular routine even after the pandemic.

"Before requiring employees to resume normal telework arrangements on a widespread basis, agency leaders should assess employees' needs, such as childcare and transportation," Vought and Rigas wrote.

Both offices also encouraged agencies to further consider granting other paid leave categories such as weather and safety leave or excused leave for employees facing childcare or dependent care duties as a result of school or daycare closures due to COVID-19.

Agencies with public-facing duties, such as the IRS and Social Security Administration, were especially encouraged to prioritize reopening in order to serve customers. Agency leadership is expected to designate local and bureau leaders as the facility point-of-contacts for making determinations such as telework status, facility re-openings and security for federally managed buildings.

"The role of a public servant requires a unique responsibility to lead in times of crisis and during a period of recovery," the memo authors wrote.

In order to protect federal workers, agencies are asked to consider implementing front-door facility screenings that would monitor employees for symptoms, including high fevers.

Since the pandemic was declared in early March, federal workers have raised claims that agencies scrambled or were slow to ensure basic safety protocols such as paid time off, telework procedures and personal protective equipment.

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