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House Lawmakers Clash Over Best Way to Reopen Federal Workplaces

June 25, 2020, 9:02 PM

The top Republican on a House Oversight subcommittee pressed for federal employees to be returned to office-based work, saying during a hearing that the government is out of step with private-sector businesses across the U.S.

But Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, was countered by the panel’s chairman, Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who pointed to the recent surge in cases in Western and Southern states in urging caution.

“We flattened the curve and our hospitals were not overwhelmed. Now we are in the process of reopening” in most parts of the U.S., Hice said during a virtual hearing Thursday on guidelines for reopening government workplaces. He said the federal government should be leading by example as businesses nationwide confront return-to-work challenges, instead of continuing to maximize telework in all areas of the country regardless of local conditions.

Connolly said it makes no sense to require federal employees who can productively telework to return to offices at a time when the U.S. is facing a steep rise in Covid-19 infections.

Most of the government’s more than 2 million civilian employees never stopped working because they’ve been able to telework, Connolly said. Employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are among those working on site because they haven’t been able to work remotely, he said.

Many states and localities are now allowing businesses to begin operating again, with wide variations based on local conditions even as daily numbers of new cases have hit new highs in several states. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in Texas, one of the states hit hardest by the surge in cases, halted phased reopenings on Thursday.

More than 2.3 million people in the U.S. have contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with more than 121,000 deaths as of June 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘Back to Normalcy’

One way for federal agencies to proceed with reopening workplaces is to bring back healthy, younger workers while continuing to allow older employees and those with underlying health conditions to work from home, said former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the witnesses who testified.

Federal facilities could show the private sector how to reopen safely, rather than “lagging” businesses in reopening, he said. Republicans on the panel agreed, with Hice saying that the House itself should be holding in-person hearings and votes—like the Republican-controlled Senate has done—rather than having members work remotely.

“There’s a strong consensus that we should get back to normalcy,” DeMint said. Restaurants and factories have reopened despite continued risk, DeMint said, adding that not bringing workers back to agency offices also involves risk, both to the economy and to peoples’ well-being.

Other witnesses said it’s too early for the government to begin reopening workplaces, particularly because it doesn’t have a detailed central plan for doing so. Those witnesses included Christopher Mihm, managing director for strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office; Lorraine Martin, president of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group; and Jacqueline Simon, national policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees.

Large companies with locations across the U.S., such as Amazon and IBM, have detailed return-to-work plans, Connolly said, but the government hasn’t issued a comparable model for its workers.

EPA vs. AFGE

The White House Office of Management and Budget and the federal Office of Personnel Management have provided multiple guidance documents to federal agencies on reopening procedures, Hice said. The guidance generally gives individual agencies latitude to respond to local conditions rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, he said.

Simon said the administration isn’t engaging with the union on the best way to reopen agency workplaces. AFGE set out a list of conditions in April for reopening agencies. Other unions representing federal workers also have said agencies need to provide uniform protections before reopening workplaces.

AFGE on Thursday posted a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, dated Wednesday, in which an agency official said the EPA notified the union of the agency’s workplace reopening plan on May 27 and briefed the union on June 17. The letter said the agency is “currently scheduling negotiations with AFGE’s designated chief negotiator.”

“Apparently, AFGE National has not effectively disseminated the information shared by the agency to AFGE representatives,” the EPA letter said.

“While it is true that EPA has given us notice and is apparently planning to bargain with us,” AFGE said in a statement, “what is also true is that they have moved ahead without completing those negotiations—rushing to reopen offices with little regard to the health and safety of employees.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@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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