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DOL Officials Exposed to Virus During White House-Led Interviews

July 10, 2020, 7:22 PM

A team of Labor Department senior political leaders is now quarantining after being exposed to the novel coronavirus during interviews with White House staffers this week, four sources with knowledge of the situation told Bloomberg Law.

The DOL officials, including at least three subagency heads, participated in meetings July 8 with representatives from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and later were sent home to quarantine when it was learned that someone who took part in the sessions had later tested positive for the virus, the sources said. The four sources were all briefed on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The White House personnel officials conducted interviews at DOL’s Washington, D.C., headquarters as part of an agency-by-agency process to determine staffers’ second-term plans, the sources said. A group of White House personnel staffers summoned DOL employees from various subagencies for separate interviews throughout the day.

Two of the sources said they were told one of the White House aides present at the meetings had later tested positive for Covid-19. All participants of at least one of the interviews took off their masks once everyone was inside the meeting room and seated in a socially distanced arrangement, according to one of the sources briefed on the matter.

“The Department of Labor has put in numerous measures to protect our employees during this pandemic,” a DOL spokeswoman said in response to questions about the exposures on July 8. “Employees who may have had potential exposure to coronavirus are encouraged to quarantine and utilize telework options. The Department has had 95% of our workforce telework during this pandemic and all offices have clear signs for social distancing, accessible handwashing and hand sanitizer options, and masks are required in common areas.”

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who’s a member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, appears to have avoided exposure. “The Secretary was not in the meeting,” said Robert Bozzuto, DOL’s assistant secretary for public affairs, via email.

It wasn’t clear how many total DOL employees attended the meetings, which were to include anyone from Senate-confirmed senior leaders all the way down to lower-level assistants.

The White House wouldn’t comment for this article.

The exposure inside the department’s Constitution Avenue headquarters followed Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella instructing all agency politicals and senior career executives to resume reporting to their offices, including at regional locations across the country, on June 22. The return-to-work order, which applied to about 200 workers, instructed employees to “lead by example,” and also noted that supervisors were to consider accommodations for those with underlying health conditions and other challenges.

Federal employee unions have voiced concerns about the federal government’s broader moves, including at the Energy and Interior departments, to order employees back to worksites even as coronavirus cases surge in many states. The DOL’s instruction, which applied to a narrower pool of employees than at other agencies, was criticized by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate labor committee, who urged Scalia to reconsider the “dangerous decision” to order workers back without a clear safety plan.

The DOL spokeswoman’s statement about the exposures this week added, “The Department has communicated to employees that it will be evaluating the situation during the month of July and inform employees of any changes once decisions are made. For those coming into work, DOL is mindful that some individuals may fall into a high risk population or be caring for a family member in this category. Some may have other challenges that make returning to the worksite by that date problematic (child care, transportation, etc.). DOL is accommodating what are sure to be unique challenges many employees may face in coming back to the office.”

The White House-directed meetings at DOL headquarters followed a July 3 report by Foreign Policy that detailed the personnel agency was planning interviews at the Defense Department to discuss political appointees’ interest in continuing to serve in the Trump administration during a potential second term.

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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