A little over three years after the world was introduced to COVID-19, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is finally planning to remove the COVID-19 Governmentwide operating status announcement that has adorned its website since that time. The agency made the announcement in a memo issued by Kiran Ahuja, the agency’s director.
The significance of this operating status is that it specified that the federal government should operate with “Maximum Telework Flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees.”
OPM will remove the announcement on May 15, 2023. This is just a few days after President Biden said that he expects to terminate the COVID-19 national emergency. He wrote in a recent notice, “I anticipate terminating the national emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, 2023.”
The president also declared the pandemic to be over months ago. In September 2022, he said during an interview, “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s – but the pandemic is over.”
Why is OPM Removing the COVID Operating Status Now?
The OPM memo states, “…COVID-19 is not driving decisions regarding how Federal agencies work and serve the public as it was at the outset of the pandemic. For the last several years, Executive departments and agencies have taken steps for the effective, orderly, and safe increased return to the workplace, and many Federal employees have completed reentry.”
Why Was it in Place for So Long?
OPM said, “We have maintained the COVID-19 Governmentwide operating status until now to preserve maximum flexibility for agencies to learn from work environment innovations and to allow for agencies to adjust their reentry plans in the most appropriate way considering the needs of each agency.”
When Will it Be Removed?
OPM will remove the COVID-19 Governmentwide operating status announcement effective May 15, 2023.
Does This Mean Federal Employees Will No Longer Be Allowed to Telework?
It’s unlikely that this change is going to lead to a substantial reduction in telework for federal employees. We won’t know the implications for sure, however, until agencies finalize their telework plans going forward per the latest directive from the Biden administration.
OPM’s announcement about removing the operating status notice states:
Further, as required by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memorandum M-23- 15, agencies are developing updated Work Environment Plans (based on post-reentry plans) to improve organizational health and organizational performance. OMB Memorandum M-23-15 informed agencies of an expectation to increase meaningful in- person work while still using flexible operational policies. Agencies should continue to strategically use telework and remote work policies in support of their workforce plans moving forward while capitalizing on the benefits of meaningful in-person work.
The OMB memo cited by OPM is one that directs federal agencies to “…substantially increase in-person work.” However, closer reading of the memo reveals that it is vague as to what that means and gives agencies leeway to keep using telework. An excerpt from OMB’s memo states:
Agency workforces are generally expected to increase meaningful in-person work—that is in-person work that is purposeful, well-planned, and optimized for in-person collaboration – while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention. Planning should recognize that some operating units have improved performance while using workplace flexibilities, while also optimizing in-person work and strong, sustainable organization health and culture.
Congressman James Comer (R-KY) couldn’t decipher the OMB memo either. He described it as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” telework policy:
House Republicans have pressured the Biden Administration to address the issue of prolonged pandemic-era telework and it is finally discussing it. However, OMB managed to issue a 19-page memo that shed virtually no light on when federal employees are returning to their offices – or under what conditions continued elevated levels of telework may be warranted. Based on today’s briefing with OMB, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the best way to characterize the Biden Administration’s telework policy.
Additionally, OPM generally supports telework for federal employees. The agency’s director (Ahuja) recently testified in front of Congress about the benefits of telework. Her testimony stated:
While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly accelerated the adoption of telework and remote work across the federal government, efforts to expand those workplace flexibilities were underway before the pandemic, mirroring trends in the private sector, largely in recognition of the benefits to both employees and employers. These benefits include increased productivity, higher employee engagement, lower employee attrition, expanded recruitment pools, and cost savings for both agencies and employees.
Text of OPM’s Governmentwide COVID-19 Operating Status on April 18, 2023
Status: Open with Maximum Telework Flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, pursuant to direction from agency heads
Employees should refer to their home agency for guidance on reporting for duty.
Federal offices nationwide continue to perform mission critical functions and operations as determined by agency heads. Please contact your supervisor to confirm telework schedule and to receive further direction from your agency head.
If you are not telework eligible or do not have access to telework equipment, please contact your supervisor to discuss next steps.
Agencies continue to serve the American people and conduct mission critical functions. Each employee should refer to their own agency for communications and guidance on telework or leave status.
Note: If you are a customer or member of the public planning to visit a Federal building, please confirm building/facility status before visiting. Some agency buildings and locations may have select hours, reduced in-person services, or visitor restrictions in place.