OPM urges telework for feds due to novel corona virus
- By Lia Russell
- Mar 05, 2020
*This story has been updated to show new COVID-19 case numbers as of March 17, 2020.*
The federal government released its first detailed guidance on working amid the COVID-19 outbreak, which comes with 4,226 reported cases documented in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The guidance comes in the form of a March 3 memo from Office of Personnel Management Director Dale Cabaniss, but it represents interagency collaboration that includes the CDC, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others.
So far the effect on the federal workplace includes the closure of a Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Seattle. The facility was closed because an employee visited with an infected patient in a nearby nursing home. Additionally, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers at a March 4 hearing that one veteran is being treated for coronavirus at the agency's Palo Alto facility in California. Additionally, the Department of Defense, the Peace Corps and others have put in place some new guidance about non-essential travel.
The memo alerts agencies to include telework options in their continuity of operations plans, "to ensure that telework has been fully incorporated and that as many employees as possible have been identified as telework employees in the plan, and are telework capable (or 'telework ready')."
Continuity of operation plans "supersede any telework policy" that already exists at an agency. The Trump administration has been paring back on telework at agencies including the Social Security Administration, the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior and component agencies at the Departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services. Additionally, restrictions on telework have figured into collective bargaining negotiations.
"Telework is not proving the most effective way of delivering" government services, outgoing Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert told the Washington Post in a January article on telework.
The memo also asked agency heads to reduce non-essential employee travel "as appropriate" and noted that feds who have been in countries designated by the Department of State as level 4 (meaning do-not-travel) should self-isolate for 14 days after returning to the U.S.
Foreign travel is being handled on a country-by-country basis. As of now, OPM is not asking feds to cancel pre-planned conferences that don't fall within areas that have a level 4 travel advisory.
Individual feds going on trips are asked to review the State Department's website for the latest information on affected countries.
Right now, the Facilities Security Committee housed at the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has a lead role in planning how to control access to federal workplaces. In addition, each facility has a designated official with the authority to put new access standards in place. According to the guidance, facilities managers will be tracking recommendations from federal and state health officials on controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, announced the launch of a website to publicize and track agency plans for managing the COVID-19 outbreak in the federal workplace.
"Agencies haven’t been very forthcoming with information to their employees," Reardon told reporters at a press briefing on the sidelines of the union's annual conference.
NTEU leaders have met with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the IRS and requested both agencies’ pandemic plans, such as workplace protocols for preventing transmission and providing sanitation supplies.
"We want to get information out to everybody about what's going on. We have asked for a briefing from every single agency so we know what’s going on, and so we can ask questions about what happens, for example, if [the coronavirus] appears in schools and they shut down," Reardon said. "What is this government going to do? What are these agencies going to do to make certain that you are able to telework? It’s important to get that information out."