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Trump Call to Bring Back Federal Workers Sets Agencies in Motion

April 21, 2020, 8:01 PM

A White House Office of Management and Budget memo telling federal agencies to begin the reopening process after coronavirus closures is consistent with the administration’s push to get the U.S. back to normal as soon as possible, though some are calling for a slower startup.

The memo from OMB Acting Director Russell Vought rightly tells agency leaders to follow state and local orders intended to curb the Covid-19 pandemic as they look to return employees to their workplaces where that’s feasible, said Robert Shea, an OMB official during the George W. Bush administration. But it’s “troublingly vague,” Shea said.

The general language used in the memo could lead some agency leaders to rush to reopen their offices, especially because President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants the U.S. economy to reopen as quickly as possible, said Shea, who’s now with management consultant Grant Thornton in Alexandria, Va. That could cause confusion and ultimately be counterproductive to a smooth reopening, particularly because 85% of federal employees live and work outside Washington, D.C., Shea said. There are about 2.1 million federal workers across the U.S., and roughly half of them are represented by unions.

“You can imagine that federal agencies might interpret the memo differently,” Shea said Tuesday. Some agencies were resistant to telework before the pandemic forced them to be more flexible, and that could lead to “wide variability” in policies as agency leaders look to reopen offices, he said.

Agencies Respond

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board are among the agencies looking to reopen, though a full return isn’t likely anytime soon.

“Preliminary discussions” have begun at the EEOC about returning employees to work, spokeswoman Kimberly Smith-Brown said. The return, when it happens, will be done “in a thoughtful, deliberate, and safe manner, consistent with guidance from the CDC and local health authorities,” she said.

The NLRB’s recent temporary suspension of union elections allowed regional offices “to ensure both maximum safety and effective execution” of the board’s mission, spokesman Edwin Egee said. Regional directors beginning April 4 “resumed exercising their discretion as to when, where, and if an election can be conducted. Under this discretion, they may supervise both manual and mail ballot elections,” Egee said.

Telework availability has been one of many areas of friction between the administration and unions that represent federal workers. It emerged as a flash-point early in the government’s preparations for the pandemic, with a top union official saying the government wasn’t close to being able to telework to the extent needed. The administration subsequently said agencies should allow telework to the maximum extent possible.

The memo from Vought also was signed by Michael Rigas, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, which is the government’s central HR office. An OMB spokesman, in a prepared statement, said the administration has worked to ensure “the government remains open and essential services continue to be provided to the American public.”

“Now as conditions warrant across each state, Federal agencies will be able to return operations to normal,” the spokesman added, praising federal workers for showing “tremendous fortitude” during this time.

‘Back to Work’?

The memo urging agencies to reopen as soon as possible is “irresponsible,” said Matt Biggs, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, an AFL-CIO affiliate the represents employees at NASA and other agencies.

“When you get guidance from OMB to start reopening, the pressure mounts on agency heads,” Biggs said. “At the end of the day, the message is to get your people back to work.”

Some agency heads and managers will wait until it is safe before asking employees to return to their workplaces, while others may be more interested in pleasing the president than in being as cautious as they should be, Biggs said.

Successful implementation of the memo “will happen if agency leaders show they care about protecting workers and constituents,” said Linda Springer, the OPM director during the George W. Bush administration.

“That means there is as much consistency, clear communication, and sensitivity to employee issues as possible,” she said.

The government should work with Federal Executive Boards in areas outside the Washington metropolitan area to ensure consistency, Springer added. The boards were established in 1961 as “a forum for communication and collaboration” for agencies outside of the D.C. area, according to the OPM’s website.

The OPM also should create a central site “for agencies to share best practices and creative solutions related to implementing the guidance,” Springer said.

With assistance from Paige Smith and Hassan Kanu in Washington.

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; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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