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Telework Tug-of-War May Hinder Government Work as Virus Spreads

March 9, 2020, 5:45 PM

A long-running battle between the Trump administration and federal unions over telework eligibility and recent efforts to scale back telework at several agencies could be hurting the government’s ability to gear up for coronavirus contingencies.

“In no way is the government ready for 100% telework or any significant fraction thereof,” said Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees. The Trump administration actively worked to reduce telework at federal agencies, often fighting its unions to do so, he said.

Responding to a possible pandemic is challenging because there are more than 2 million federal workers across the U.S. and a variety of agency missions. Some federal agencies are still using “legacy” information technology systems, which likely will further complicate the government’s response because of the technical challenges of getting the various IT systems to work together in an emergency, said Don Kettl, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia over the weekend, making a unified response from the government more urgent. At the same time, unions have tangled with a number of agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the EPA, and the Social Security Administration, over efforts to reduce telework since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

Agencies should review their telework policies to ensure written telework agreements—including “situational” or ad hoc agreements for those who currently don’t have signed telework agreements—are in place for as many employees as possible, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which acts as the government’s central HR office, said in guidance issued Saturday. Agencies also should determine if additional categories of employees can be classified as telework eligible, the OPM said.

“Each agency is responsible for determining when and how to use telework that works best for its mission and workforce. OPM has no statutory authority over telework,” OPM spokesman Anthony Marucci said in an email.

The White House and its Office of Management and Budget didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday and Monday.

Telework Spats

Telework is “something that the unions have been advancing,” often in opposition to agencies that before the crisis were looking to cut back on the practice, Kettl said. Skirmishes with unions over a wide variety of workplace issues, including telework, may be contributing to a “because I said so” attitude toward telework, he said.

Federal agencies “need to get agreements signed, they have to make sure employees have the right software and access capabilities, and they must have protocols in place so managers can manage work product at efficiency. Much of this was lost over the past few years and now that we need it most, they are trying to fix what they broke,” Lenkart said.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 700,000 federal workers, in a letter to OPM Director Dale Cabaniss on Friday said agencies should be told to immediately allow all telework-capable employees to work from home if they want.

Congress should step in to ensure that the administration’s response to the coronavirus is adequate, the AFGE said. The union’s letter to Cabaniss came the same day that Trump signed an $8.3 billion bill to boost the overall U.S. response to the coronavirus.

The National Treasury Employees Union is asking agencies where it represents workers for their contingency plans. The union, which represents about 150,000 federal workers, is posting agency responses on a public website as it receives them.

NFFE, which represents about 110,000 federal workers, is gathering information on how agencies where it represents workers are responding, spokeswoman Brittany Holder said. “We are having a call with our local leaders next week to go over our guidance and to survey how agencies are handling employee concerns,” she said on Friday.

Virus Escalates Readiness Question

There are a lot of layers to the question of government readiness for the virus, Kettl said. Beyond the conflict over telework is the deeper question of whether the government’s HR policies are conducive to ushering in the next generation of employees and the future of work, he said.

A January 2019 OPM report to Congress on the status of government telework found that “many agencies still face challenges accurately tracking eligibility and participation,” and “fewer agencies were able to provide information on cost savings associated with their telework programs.”

Telework is widely accepted at some agencies. For example, NASA called for an agencywide telework day Friday as part of its preparations for the coronavirus.

“The purpose of this exercise is to test our capabilities, resources, and preparedness for large-scale teleworking,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a memo. “I encourage civil servants and onsite contractors who are telework eligible to participate by working from an alternate location Friday.”

Agencies Watching Situation

A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service said last week the agency is monitoring the coronavirus situation as the April 15 tax filing deadline approaches.

“Normal IRS operations are continuing, and we are seeing a strong, smooth filing season for the nation. Taxpayers should continue to file and submit tax returns as they normally would,” he said.

Federal Trade Commission spokeswoman Juliana Gruenwald Henderson said the agency is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OPM, and others.

“This includes maximizing the use of telework and other workplace flexibilities, asking that staff who may be ill stay home, sharing health safety tips and best practices, such as frequent hand-washing, and, of course, sharing updates and new guidance as it becomes available,” she said.

—With assistance from Dan Stoller, Bobby Magill, Perry Cooper, Jaclyn Diaz, Courtney Rozen, Rebecca Kern, Roxana Tiron, Lydia Beyoud, and Aysha Bagchi.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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