Coronavirus: Calls to Protect Federal Employees Ramping Up

As concerns mount about the coronavirus, lawmakers are pushing for more protections for federal employees.

Activity is ramping up in Washington as worries about the potential spread of the coronavirus grow.

Telework

Telework is front and center at the discussion of dealing with the COVID-19 virus.

Lawmakers are pushing the Office of Personnel Management to expand telework for federal employees as a means of preventing it from spreading. AFGE has made the same plea.

OPM has already said that it was encouraging federal agencies to “maximize their telework capacity by entering into telework agreements with as many telework-eligible employees as possible…” when it outlined HR flexibilities with respect to the virus.

News also recently broke that the House of Representatives is preparing for the possibility of having its staff members telework in response to the coronavirus.

Coinciding with all of this is a bill that was recently introduced by Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) that would expand telework for federal employees. The Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act (H.R. 6108) would do the following:

  • Prohibit agencies from making indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts to telework availability.
  • Require agencies to notify Congress about and justify any plans to restrict telework.
  • Require agencies to include annual goals for participation in agency-wide telework policies and report on cost savings from telework.
  • Direct OPM to establish uniform guidance for agencies on how to collect information on, set goals for, and report cost savings achieved through telework.

Connolly did say that the recent threat from the coronavirus is a factor in introducing the bill.

He stated, “In the face of the coronavirus threat, federal agencies are expected to have a robust continuity of operations plan ready for immediate activation should the outbreak threaten to interrupt essential government services. Telework is an essential tool for that response.”

Request for Financial Support

The letter that was sent last week by the group of Senators to OPM Director Dale Cabaniss also asked OPM to ensure that federal employees continue to get paid in one way or another even if the coronavirus ultimately forces them to stay home. It was sent by 8 Senators, several of whom represent districts in the Washington, DC area that are home to many federal workers.

The Senators wrote, “We worry that OPM’s guidance to date does not demonstrate to our nation’s hardworking public servants that the federal government is prioritizing their health, well-being, and economic security. We urge you to swiftly develop and circulate guidance that does more to reassure them that they will not be penalized for heeding public health guidance, they will continue to receive pay while doing so, and they will not be expected to work while sick.”

The letter did say that telework should be expanded and used in the event of expanded public health concerns, but the Senators also said that federal employees should not be expected to work if they are sick or are caring for somebody is sick even if they do not have any available leave.

Known Coronavirus Case Involving a Federal Employee

The Department of Homeland Security announced last week that one of its offices in King County, Washington State was closed “out of an abundance of caution” after a DHS employee had contracted the virus from visiting a relative at a nursing facility. The employee in question had been staying home from work when feeling ill.

A Postal Service employe has also contracted the virus in the same part of the country. She worked in a facility that does not interface with customers and is reported to have self-quarantined until cleared by health authorities.

OPM Guidance on the Coronavirus

OPM is continuing to issue questions and answers for federal employees and agencies about the coronavirus. As of the time of this writing, the latest memo was issued on March 7, 2020 and OPM has set up a dedicated page on its website that it will continue to update with new information.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.

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