Federal workers trickling back to offices across the country are finding a lack of consistent mandates on crucial coronavirus protections, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
Few federal workers are back in the office yet, and agency protocols could get tougher if leaders start to move away from telework as the default option. But for now, employees at several agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Social Security Administration, and the State Department—report a mixed bag of safety guidelines and enforcement, with some agencies applying more stringent rules than others.
“I am safe in the office only because everyone else is teleworking, so staying away from people is doable,” an EPA employee on the East Coast said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “Still, there are people there without masks, just walking around like it’s a party. Some guards just pull their masks off and chat with each other all day. I’m in my office with the door locked.”
The government employs more than 2 million workers across the U.S., so variations in policy aren’t surprising. Some policy experts say agencies must be able to adapt their approach to fit their mission and to respond to virus hot-spots.
Yet federal employee unions contend a patchwork of safety guidelines across the federal bureaucracy isn’t acceptable, and have called for enforcement of uniform mandates—an issue that could take on greater significance if more agencies reopen offices.
Agency-wide shifts back to office work would create a high potential for disputes because most people have worked remotely since the spring and have grown accustomed to taking their own approach to safety, said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work, a division of management-side law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP that provides consulting services.
“There’s careless masking on one end and constant cleaning on the other,” he said, referring to people’s varied perspectives. That’s why clear rules—and prominent signs supporting the rules—are needed, he said.
Federal agencies also play an important role in setting an example for the private sector, said Adam Finkel, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
“You don’t want agencies setting rules for the private sector that they’re not following themselves,” Finkel, former director of health standards at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said. Such an approach would lead to “Whataboutism,” giving companies an excuse not to follow government rules that are seen as an inconvenience, he added.
The Trump administration has allowed individual agencies to determine how and when to un-shutter their facilities. The White House Office of Management and Budget encouraged agency leaders to review guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has recommended face coverings.
Multiple agencies including the Office of Personnel Management, which acts as the government’s central human resources branch, have issued more detailed guidance for bringing staff back to the office, and some have encouraged or even required masks. OPM’s guidance for its own staff doesn’t require mask-wearing.
EPA staff are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks and to follow CDC guidelines to ensure safety, an agency spokesman said. That includes social distancing and holding fewer in-person meetings, he said.
But eight EPA employees who have returned to offices throughout the U.S. said they don’t think the agency has met its promise to protect workers’ health. All eight, in addition to workers at other federal agencies interviewed for this story, requested anonymity so they could speak freely.
The East Coast EPA employee who has taken to locking her door for a measure of safety said some colleagues haven’t been wearing masks, and “at least some of the face-covering signs have disappeared.” Security guards routinely don’t put on a mask when a member of the public approaches, the employee said.
Another EPA worker said he has returned to his Midwest office only once, weeks ago, but wasn’t impressed with the safety protocols. The office hasn’t given workers any guidance on temperature checks, key card usage, sanitizing stations, use of shared equipment, or protocols for using elevators, bathrooms, or kitchenettes, the worker said.
Not every EPA staffer sees things the same way. Another said there are so few people back in the office that he feels his health isn’t at risk. The EPA spokesman said the agency has addressed workers’ complaints and spoken to the Federal Protective Service, which employs its security guards, about the seriousness of following CDC guidelines.
‘Who Is the Policeman?’
At the Social Security Administration, one Arkansas-based staffer described safety protocols as satisfactory.
“I like going into the office. I never wanted to do 100% telework,” said the staffer, who has gone into the office three days a week during the pandemic to convert paper documents into electronic files.
The employee said only two other colleagues are regularly in the office, and they wear masks when they interact. Members of the public in “dire need” of in-person assistance are handled by a manager in an area outside the office, and the agency has procedures in place for handling mail, the staffer added.
A spokesperson for SSA didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ralph de Juliis, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents about 25,000 field office and call center employees at the agency, said SSA requires employees to wear masks whenever they are inside an agency building.
“It all seems well and good, but who is the policeman?” de Juliis said.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, a senior official described safety protocols at agency headquarters as good, though not perfect. Guards always wear masks, and most staff do when in groups, the official said. Elevators are operated according to social distancing, with stickers indicating where to stand.
Staff have their temperatures checked when entering the building, an HHS spokesperson said. The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents HHS workers, said the agency has required masks to enter or walk through the building, but not in designated workspaces.
Another HHS official who works at headquarters said most staffers wear masks when walking around or in conference rooms, but not while at their desks.
Striking a Balance
Most agencies have established comprehensive written protocols. But problems arise when they aren’t consistently enforced, said Liz Borkowski, a public health researcher at George Washington University. Agency supervisors and managers aren’t entirely to blame for spotty enforcement, because they’re being asked to execute difficult policies, she said.
“It can be hard to strike a balance between being protective, and allowing people to do the things that are part of what being human is about,” Borkowski said. “To some degree, there is a human need to interact, and it’s much harder to do that when you’re wearing a mask.”
Another problem is that federal employees may fear they could be retaliated against if they report colleagues, and especially supervisors, who don’t follow protocols, said Liz Hempowicz, public policy director for the Project on Government Oversight.
Unions for federal workers have had some success in making their voices heard on the issue.
For example, AFGE Local 32, which represents workers at the Office of Personnel Management, generally has found the agency to be responsive to employee concerns, said Marlo Bryant-Cunningham, the local’s president. In instances where low-level managers have ignored workers’ safety concerns, Local 32 has gotten results by asking OPM’s human resources division to intervene, she said.
At the State Department, the union that represents passport specialists—who started returning to work in mid-June—reached a memorandum of understanding with agency leadership that covers personal protective equipment, work schedules, and leave, said John Kaucher, chief steward for Local 1998 of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Kaucher said the State Department office where he works, covering the San Francisco Bay region, “has gone above and beyond” in response to union concerns about return to work—though mask policies vary agency-wide, he said.
A State Department spokesperson said the agency worked closely with the union to develop appropriate and flexible work arrangements, adding that passport employees have begun to return to offices “in substantial numbers.”
Kaucher worries that keeping a safe distance between work stations will be more difficult to maintain with more employees in the office.
At one large passport office, he said, “they are starting to have conversations on what would happen if they couldn’t social-distance.” A plan to avoid crowding could include keeping the office open for longer hours and having employees work in shifts, he said.
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