DOL to Begin Reopening Offices, Sending Senior Staff Back (1)

June 16, 2020, 7:48 PMUpdated: June 16, 2020, 9:36 PM

The Labor Department is instructing all political appointees and senior career executives nationwide to return to their offices beginning June 22, ending a three-month period during which these workers were encouraged to telework to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

“All states have begun phased reopening around the nation. As the leaders of the Department of Labor, we have a responsibility to bring our employees back efficiently and safely,” Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella told staff Monday in an email shown to Bloomberg Law. “In keeping with that goal, DOL’s non-career staff and career Senior Executive Service members should lead by example. Therefore, we are asking you to return to on-site work effective Monday, June 22.”

The vast majority of the department’s roughly 14,000 employees across the country have been allowed to work remotely since mid-March and won’t be affected by the new directive.

The return-to-work instructions apply to a few hundred political officials and career supervisors. There are roughly 100 political staffers at DOL, a small percentage of whom have been reporting to offices during the pandemic, a senior official said. The agency had 165 senior executive service employees in June 2019, according to the latest data available from the Office of Personnel Management.

The directive shows that the federal agency charged with protecting workers is gradually moving to redefine its concept of workplace use for its employees, as Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has been urging businesses to take steps to safely reopen.

It wasn’t immediately clear, however, if the department has set a timeline for returning all staff to office-based work.

The contents of the email were corroborated by five DOL employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because they hadn’t been given clearance to discuss internal processes. A department spokeswoman also confirmed the email.

Accommodations Considered

Political officials and senior executives who have underlying health conditions that place them at higher risk if they contract Covid-19, or those who have other difficulties associated with returning to work, were told to contact their supervisor. “We want to accommodate” people who face such challenges, Pizzella said in the email.

“The Department is committed to continuing to safely carry out its mission. The Deputy Secretary’s message applies to all non-career staff and career Senior Executive Service members,” a DOL spokeswoman said in a prepared statement. “Supervisors have been instructed to make reasonable exceptions where appropriate.”

Safety protocols in DOL offices “may vary across localities,” Pizzella’s message stated.

“While many of the facilities where DOL offices are located around the nation are not currently conducting building entry screening, this may change before June 22 or shortly after your return to work,” the email stated.

Employees returning to the office will be required to wear cloth face coverings when in common areas, such as elevators and hallways. They also were told to maximize distance from others.

The department has regional and district offices across the U.S., including in the Sun Belt region, where reported cases of Covid-19 have spiked in recent days.

Political Concerns

The DOL’s plans to phase in a return to offices comes after other federal agencies have drawn complaints from staff unions and some Democrats about requiring employees to resume in-person work before the virus has stopped spreading.

“Any decision to reopen must be based on science and with safety in mind. This cannot be a purely political decision to bring some non-career staff back into the office and unnecessarily threaten their health and safety,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, in a statement to Bloomberg Law. “We must think proactively about re-opening federal offices and that is why I have requested the Department of Labor Inspector General to investigate these plans and contingencies.”

Connolly sent letters to all federal agency inspectors general on Monday, asking them to review whether their department is applying best practices in calling back federal employees to their work sites.

The IRS required thousands of employees in Kentucky, Texas, and Utah to report to offices earlier this month to sift through backlogs of unopened mail and returns. The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans June 3 to bring back workers at some offices as soon as early July, sparking criticism from an internal union.

Scalia on Monday pushed back against the suggestion the nation is reopening too fast.

“The increase in cases we’ve seen in some locations results from several factors, including increased testing—it does not indicate we re-opened too early,” the labor secretary said during a virtual event hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

His reference to testing echoes President Donald Trump, who has pointed to improved testing capabilities to explain the resurgence of Covid-19 cases in several states. But some public health experts say that while increased testing is detecting more cases, the rise stems largely from people going out in public in close quarters after quarantine orders were lifted, along with a relaxation of social distancing.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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