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Washington-Area Feds Should Be Teleworking, White House Says

March 16, 2020, 5:38 PM

Federal workers in the Washington metropolitan area should be permitted to telework to the maximum extent possible to reduce the risk of new coronavirus infection, a memo from the White House says.

Agencies should “offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, consistent with operational needs of the departments and agencies,” Russell Vought, acting head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in a Sunday memorandum to agency heads. “In addition, we encourage agencies to use all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees, to the extent their work could be telework enabled.”

There are about 2 million civilian federal workers across the U.S. About 15% of the workers are in the Washington metro area, meaning that the OMB memo wouldn’t apply directly to about 85% of the workforce. Federal employees in areas of the country that have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, such as Seattle, are subject to separate guidance.

Agency heads in the Washington area generally “should develop an operational plan that maximizes resources and functional areas to most safely and efficiently deliver these mission-critical functions and other Government services,” the OMB memo says.

Some agencies already have implemented limited telework policies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employees at the civil rights agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and field office are teleworking until further notice, after a worker presented symptoms consistent with the disease caused by the virus Covid-19.

The IRS is allowing more employees to work remotely and providing more flexibility with leave requests in response to the growing threat. The National Labor Relations Board announced Sunday that it’s shutting down offices In New York, Chicago, and Detroit because of workplace dangers connected to the virus, after earlier requiring telework for some agency employees. And the Federal Trade Commission announced last week that it will allow all employees to telework in the wake of the virus.

Federal union leaders said March 12 that the government needed to do more to protect its employees, including through increased telework opportunities. Resistance at some agencies to allowing telework has gotten in the way of the government’s coronavirus response, some unions said earlier.

‘Weather and Safety Leave’

The OMB memo gives agency heads discretion to offer what the government calls “weather and safety leave” to federal workers who aren’t telework-eligible. And agencies aren’t restricted under the memo to offering this kind of leave—which used to be known as administrative leave—only to employees considered at high risk of contracting Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

These are all steps in the right direction, but the government should immediately allow all workers, no matter where they’re located, to telework, Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said Monday.

The government also should give all federal employees who can’t telework the option of taking weather and safety leave, Lenkart said. Otherwise, federal employees who aren’t set up for telework will have to “burn through” their annual and sick leave because of a situation that isn’t their fault, he said.

“This is a step in the right direction. Make it mandatory, and make it governmentwide,” said Lenkart, whose union represents about 110,000 federal workers.

“To ensure the safety and well-being of our Federal workforce, all agencies within the National Capital Region have been asked to offer maximum telework flexibilities. It is imperative that the Federal Government continue to operate and work on behalf of the American people,” a senor administration official said in an email when asked for comment.

The EEOC’s workforce is “telework ready,” according to Rachel Shonfield, American Federation of Government Employees Council 216 president, which represents EEOC employees nationwide.

“We have the equipment, and our positions and work are well suited to carry out our duties remotely,” she said. “The Agency has been responsive to many of the Union’s requests, but not at the pace that the Union believes the circumstances warrant.”

Shonfield says a transition to 100% telework is necessary, and keeping offices open “waiting for the inevitable reported potential case, and then abruptly closing is not working.”

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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