Labor Department Delays Staff Office Returns by Three Months

Sept. 22, 2021, 8:07 PM

The U.S. Labor Department postponed return-to-office plans for its workforce by three months, a move that comes as the agency develops a vaccination mandate for private-sector workers while all federal workers must get vaccinated by November.

The department, which employs about 15,000 workers across the U.S., will begin returning employees to office-based work in three phases starting Jan. 3, according to an email to staff that was shared with Bloomberg Law. It marks the second delay to the department’s return-to-office planning, and also will apply to DOL contractors.

Agency leaders decided to push back the resumption of in-person work “after reviewing various factors, including President Biden’s Executive Orders requiring COVID-19 vaccination for Federal employees and contractors,” Rachana Desai Martin, DOL’s assistant secretary for administration and management, wrote in an email Monday to all department employees and contractors.

The email was verified by two recipients, who asked for anonymity because they didn’t have approval to discuss internal policy. Department media representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Department offices will permit up to 50% occupancy during the first phase, according to an earlier email in August. Martin’s email Monday didn’t specify the occupancy percentages, but did say the phased approach was unchanged, aside from the three-month adjustment. The previous plan called for transitioning to 75% occupancy in phase 2 a month later, and to full capacity a month after that.

The earlier phase-one return date of Oct. 7 would’ve been more than six weeks before Biden’s Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees, including those working remotely, to be fully vaccinated.

The White House’s plan to contain the delta variant and reopen workplaces across the country subjects federal workers to more stringent requirements than those the DOL is currently developing for the private sector, because a testing opt-out isn’t an option for the federal service.

Questions From Staff

Biden tasked the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration with issuing an emergency regulation to require private-sector businesses with at least 100 employees to ensure all workers are fully vaccinated or tested weekly for Covid-19. The rule is expected to be released within weeks, but department officials haven’t said when enforcement would begin.

Martin’s email said that a “vast majority” of DOL employees have reported being fully vaccinated. She added that many agency staffers have had questions about how Biden’s mandate would affect their return to office-based work.

The department’s career and political workforce has been teleworking since Biden took office, except for a small percentage who perform functions deemed essential for on-site work. Political appointees and senior career executives were reporting in-person under former President Donald Trump.

Some members of DOL leadership may begin reporting in-person in December “to ensure a smooth transition into Phase 1" in January, Martin wrote.

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; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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