Not Yet: Senators Say Federal Employees Shouldn’t Return to Work in Their Offices

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By on July 9, 2020 in Current Events with 0 Comments
A group of three employees wearing face masks sitting around a table in an office having a meeting

Some lawmakers think that federal employees will be put in danger from the coronavirus if they resume their normal office jobs right now.

In a letter to the Acting Directors of Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Tim Kaine (D-VA), said that they believe that the agencies’ “current guidance is endangering the health and safety of federal workers and everyone in our region.”

The Senators represent districts that are home to many federal employees working in the Washington, DC metro area.

By extension, they said that the “entire country” was in danger because of the policies put forth by OPM and OMB.

“…since 85 percent of federal employees work outside of our region, it endangers the entire country,” stated the letter.

The letter added that many federal employees do not have access to childcare because of the coronavirus and returning to work in the office “makes it needlessly harder for them to balance work and family obligations during the pandemic.”

The Senators went on to ask OMB and OPM to “issue clearer guidance directing agencies to continue maximizing telework throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The crux of the letter was that current reopening guidelines are taking federal employees off of telework too soon. The guidance to which the Senators are referring was issued by OMB in April in conjunction with the Opening Up America Again guidelines from the White House.

Van Hollen told The Washington Post that Congress has some means at its disposal to block federal employees from returning to work in their offices. This would come through new legislation on the coronavirus or the annual defense budget and bills to fund the government past the end of the fiscal year (September 30).

Van Hollen told the Post that “legislation will take time to be put in place, but these decisions are being made right now.”

A copy of the letter is included below.

Dear Mr. Rigas and Mr. Vought:

We write to express our opposition to plans to require many federal employees in the National Capital Region to return to their worksites. The current guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is encouraging these unsafe actions, and we urge you to issue new guidance to better protect the federal workforce and surrounding communities from the increasing spread of COVID-19. 

As we are seeing around the nation, premature reopenings are leading to new waves of COVID-19 cases. It is especially important for federal agencies to have clear guidance that sets a positive example. As of July 8th, more than 3,000,000 Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 131,700 Americans have died.

Federal employees and contractors have been teleworking successfully throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency, keeping vital services running and implementing economic relief programs and measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many workers in our area still lack access to regular child care due to COVID-19, and ordering these workers back into the office makes it needlessly harder for them to balance work and family obligations during the pandemic. 

The current guidance is encouraging agencies to end maximum telework prematurely. COVID-19 is a deadly threat to anyone – and anyone can carry the virus and transmit it to others – but the current OPM/OMB guidance only supports sustained maximum telework throughout the pandemic for certain workers deemed to be high risk. Further, the guidance sometimes conflicts with direction from other members of the Trump Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread. 

In the National Capital Region, many federal agencies are bringing employees back to the office instead of teleworking, even though the reopening guidelines for Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all urge employers to continue telework as much as possible. Unlike these federal agencies, governments in Maryland, Virginia, and the District continue to utilize liberal telework policies and limited office capacity for public sector workers. 

Prior to the pandemic, 40 percent of Metro commuters during rush hour in the National Capitol Region were federal employees. Any increased crowding on trains and buses in the National Capital Region will only further increase the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

Your current guidance is endangering the health and safety of federal workers and everyone in our region. And since 85 percent of federal employees work outside of our region, it endangers the entire country. We urge you to issue clearer guidance directing agencies to continue maximizing telework throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

© 2020 Ian Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ian Smith.

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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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