DOL Building Stays Open, Despite Tenant Coronavirus Confirmation

March 10, 2020, 10:42 PM

The Labor Department is keeping open a satellite office in an Arlington, Va., building where a worker for another agency tested positive for the new coronavirus, according to internal emails obtained by Bloomberg Law.

A DOL Mine Safety and Health Administration official told employees in the Virginia office Monday that a Defense Department agency worker in the building was confirmed to have Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The space, which serves as MSHA’s headquarters, also houses mine safety attorneys from the Solicitor of Labor’s office.

“At this time, the circumstances do not dictate closing the MSHA or SOL office,” Li-Tai Bilbao, MSHA’s director of administration and management, informed agency staff in a second email. “However, we will continue to evaluate this situation (and all Covid-19 reports) and make adjustments as appropriate.”

The internal emails don’t say whether employees will be given permission to work from home. The Trump administration has been moving to limit the rights of federal employees to telework, raising questions about agencies’ preparedness in the event government offices are shuttered or employees need to be quarantined.

“The Department takes the health and safety of its employees seriously,” a DOL spokesperson told Bloomberg Law via email. “At this time, the Department is continuing to operate as usual and is monitoring the situation. DOL Agency Heads are reviewing their Agency continuity of operations (COOP) plans to ensure that telework has been fully incorporated and that employees are appropriately identified as telework participants in the plan.”

Bargaining Denied

The union representing DOL employees asked department officials on Tuesday to bargain over telework rights for employees as a response to the coronavirus, said Christopher Findlay, a union representative. DOL denied the request, stating that it falls outside the realm of bargaining topics, said Jeff Wheeler, the president of the union, American Federation of Government Employees Local 12.

Wheeler said the union did meet with management to discuss preparation for the virus Friday, but that was before news broke of a coronavirus confirmation in the MSHA building. The union expects to continue communicating with the department and with members about a readiness plan, regardless of whether that’s through formal bargaining, Wheeler added.

The Labor Department occupies three floors of the building, including one floor that MSHA shares with mine safety attorneys at the Solicitor of Labor’s office. Findlay said employees share an elevator and lobby with the individual who contracted the coronavirus, who works at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

The department, including the MSHA agency charged with protecting the workplace safety of coal miners, is one of scores of workplaces across the globe under pressure to respond to health concerns stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. The union’s request for DOL to take action on behalf of its own workforce comes as House Democrats are urging the DOL Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enact an emergency rule to prevent coronavirus exposure.

“The health and safety of our workforce is of paramount importance and we will monitor the potential impacts of COVID-19 disease,” the email to MSHA employees states. “If any individuals have specific concerns, they should reach out to their Supervisor.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday became the first federal agency to tell employees to work from home due to a reported coronavirus case.

“Some people have initiated telework with their immediate supervisor,” Findlay told Bloomberg Law. “But there’s no blanket policy or directive. It’s kind of like you’re on your own—whatever you can best negotiate with your supervisor, depending on your own circumstances.”

Findlay said he wasn’t aware of any situations in which supervisors had denied an employee’s request to work from home. But he said the department should provide general instructions on leave requests that apply to all DOL employees.

“It’s probably a matter of time before it hits the Frances Perkins Building,” he said, referring to the department’s headquarters in Washington.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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