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Unions Doubt Agencies Can Reopen Safely by Going Their Own Way

May 19, 2020, 2:39 PM

Unions are calling for governmentwide mandates to ensure federal workplaces are safe before any large-scale return to work begins during the Covid-19 pandemic and to avoid a patchwork of different agency preparations.

So far, most agencies where employees can telework haven’t begun calling their workforces back, and there’s no uniform schedule across the executive branch for doing so.

It’s unclear how many of the nation’s 2.1 million civilian federal employees are working remotely. The U.S. government hasn’t tracked the numbers. Also, some federal workers, such as Department of Veterans Affairs medical personnel and Transportation Security Administration airport screeners who can’t do their jobs remotely, have kept reporting to their work sites throughout the health emergency.

The Trump administration, though, has made clear its intention to allow individual agencies to lead the way in determining how and when to unshutter their facilities. That sets the stage for friction as efforts to return federal employees to their workplaces unfold—particularly if unions think efforts are being rushed or not being implemented consistently across agencies or locations.

“Putting a jug of hand sanitizer in the break room” isn’t going to be enough, said Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents about 110,000 federal workers.

The union wants governmentwide safety mandates plus guarantees that agencies will let workers continue to telework if they are reluctant to return to their offices. Without uniform guidance on best practices for reopening workplaces from the executive branch, returning workers could face conditions and changes that vary greatly from site to site, prompting worries that some agencies, if not most, will be ill-prepared for sweeping workforce returns, Lenkart said.

“We have to be more prepared than we were the last time around,” he said, referring to the government’s initial response as coronavirus infections that can lead to the disease Covid-19 spread across the U.S.

Back to Work

Memos from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management on telework and other social-distancing measures are open to different interpretations by different agencies, Lenkart said. OPM serves as the central human resources agency for the federal government.

“In partnership with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and the private sector, the federal government is actively planning to ramp back up government operations to the maximum extent possible, as local conditions warrant,” OMB Director Russell Vought said in a memo distributed last month to the heads of federal departments and agencies.

“Agencies are encouraged to allow federal employees and contractors to return to the office in low-risk areas,” Vought wrote.

MIchael Rigas, the acting deputy director for management at OMB and the acting OPM director, said on ABC7’s “Government Matters” show earlier this month that, for agencies with teleworkers, managers should make return-to-work decisions based on their unique workforces, missions, and locations to give the government flexibility—a better option than a “one-size-fits all” approach.

Rigas also said the government hasn’t collected information on how many employees are teleworking but plans to do so.

An OMB spokesman, asked for additional comment, said, “As conditions warrant across each state, federal agencies are working to return to normal operations.”

Unions want more of a uniform commitment.

Six conditions must be met before federal employees return to work, including “universal testing” for Covid-19 in the U.S., science-based standards for how workplaces will reopen, and bargaining with federal employee unions, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 700,000 government employees, making it the largest federal employee union.

Federal employee unions clashed with agencies over efforts to restrict telework, before the pandemic led the administration to call for “maximum telework flexibilities.”

Safer Spaces

The General Services Administration, which handles facilities management for many federal agencies, said in a statement that individual agencies have the ability to examine existing layouts to determine what changes are needed to make their work sites safe.

“In many cases, agencies may be able to implement appropriate social-distancing protocols without changing the physical layout of their space,” said a GSA spokesperson. For instance, workers may be able to report on alternating schedules or use excess workspace capacity to spread out, the spokesperson said.

Workplaces in GSA-controlled buildings are cleaned regularly in line with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and those where Covid-19 cases have been reported are getting enhanced cleanings, also in line with CDC guidelines, the spokesperson said. Signs are being posted on social distancing and other best practices, and the GSA is working with food vendors to make sure they’re also promoting social distancing and following CDC guidelines, the spokesperson said.

Jeff Neal, the top human resources official at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration who writes about federal personnel issues on his ChiefHRO blog, said agency heads who emphasized collaboration through open work spaces will be forced to adjust their thinking so returning workers stay far enough apart to reduce the risk of viral transmission.

Employees, on the other hand, may be more willing to abandon open work plans for the sake of social distancing, Neal said.

Workers, he said, “isolate themselves” when they don’t have enough space, noting that, pre-pandemic, many already wore earbuds to cancel out colleagues’ chatter or retreated to private spaces in their buildings.

Even when federal workers return to offices, telework will remain an important part of maintaining agency operations—and should be seen as a continuity-of-operations (COOP) issue rather than an employee perk, Neal said.

“You should put talented people on” COOP planning, he said. “You may not need it, but you probably will.”

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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