COVID-19 and “Protecting the Federal Workforce”

The White House has issued guidance for agencies on implementing new COVID-19 safety regulations for federal employees.

The White House Office of Management and Budget recently issued guidance instructing federal agencies how to begin implementing new COVID-19 safety protocols per President Biden’s recent executive order entitled “Protecting the Federal Workforce.”

The executive order established a Safer Federal Workforce Task Force which will work with agencies to develop their COVID-19 workplace safety plans. The OMB memo is one of the first steps in issuing such guidance to agencies.

While the guidance contained in the memo is extensive, it notes that it is not meant to be comprehensive and says that “additional implementing guidance will follow as necessary.”

Agency Tasks

Agencies are instructed to immediately take the following actions:

  1. Immediately require correct and consistent use of masks and physical distancing consistent with current CDC guidance in all Federal buildings.
  2. Review the safety principles in the memo and adapt as necessary to meet the needs of the agency.
  3. Designate a COVID-19 coordination team within the agency.

Face Masks

A prime component of President Biden’s executive order is a mask mandate for all federal buildings.

As to the mask requirement, the memo says that it is mandatory to wear masks that cover the nose and mouth in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidance.

According to the OMB memo, federal agencies “should immediately require masks and distancing consistent with current CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance in all Federal buildings.” This will apply to all federal employees, contractors and on-site visitors in federal buildings.

The following are the kinds of masks recommended by the OMB memo:

  • Non-medical disposable masks
  • Masks that fit properly (snugly around the nose and chin with no large gaps around the sides of the face)
  • Masks made with breathable fabric (such as cotton)
  • Masks made with tightly woven fabric (i.e., fabrics that do not let light pass through when held up to a light source)
  • Masks with two or three layers
  • Masks with inner filter pockets

“Agencies should not allow novelty/non-protective masks, masks with ventilation valves, or face shields as a substitute for masks,” according to the memo.

Agencies may also purchase masks to hand out to people coming into buildings if they have the funds available, but they are not required to do so.

The CDC has an extensive list of “mask adaptations and alternatives” for situations where individuals cannot tolerate wearing a mask or should not wear one. In these cases, the memo instructs agencies to consider the CDC list and says that “accommodations will be made for individuals with required documentation.”

Why the Mask Mandate?

A number of FedSmith readers commented in response to President Biden’s executive order requiring masks in federal buildings that their agencies already had such a requirement. They wondered why it was being issued given that many agencies already had mask requirements.

One federal employee union has an answer to this question.

According to a press release from the National Treasury Employees Union, NTEU National President Tony Reardon said that the mask requirements already in agencies were not being consistently enforced nationwide.

“We believe the executive order will give agencies and managers clear authority to enforce the policy across the board,” Reardon said.

He added that such a policy was “long overdue.”


OMB’s memo also places a limit of 25% of normal occupancy on federal buildings in most cases. “Unless it is physically impossible or poses a threat to critical national security interests, generally speaking, occupancy in Federal workplaces should be no more than 25% of normal capacity during periods of significant or high community transmission,” states the OMB memo.

This means that federal employees will be doing more telework where possible.”

As a general principle, every effort will be made to maximize the use of remote work during widespread community transmission,” reads the memo. It also notes that federal employees will be given “advance notice and guidance” before being told to return to work in their offices.


The memo directs federal employees to strictly adhere to CDC travel guidelines before, during and after work related trips. It also says that federal employees may be required to quarantine at home for a period of time after official or personal travel.

A copy of the memo is included below.

COVID-19 Safe Federal Workplace: Agency Model Safety Principles

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.