Senators from both parties said the Trump administration’s guidance encouraging agencies to allow their employees to work remotely proved inadequate to protect employees and the public from the coronavirus outbreak.
A group of senators from both parties over the weekend introduced legislation that would mandate that agencies allow all federal workers with telework agreements to work from home full time and work to expand access to those who are not yet eligible to work remotely.
On Saturday, Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced the Emergency Telework Act (S. 3561). The bill would grant all federal workers with telework agreements the ability to work remotely full time during the coronavirus outbreak, and “evaluate” whether to make telework available to those who currently are not eligible to do so.
It also would require federal agencies to continue to offer fulltime telework to employees so long as there is a risk of community spread of COVID-19. It also requires agencies to extend telework to high-risk employees and to workers in high-risk areas.
The bill does provide exemptions for non-portable work, and it requires the administration to develop a plan to maximize telework in preparation for the possibility of a future public health emergency.
The lawmakers said they introduced the bill in response to the “lack of clear and direct guidance” from the White House, Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, and the resulting slow response by some agencies to implement expanded telework.
“When it comes to telework, the federal government should lead by example,” Van Hollen said. “Instead, we’re hearing from employees across the federal government who have been forced to come into the office even when they’re able to work from home. The inconsistent federal response is senseless, and ultimately, in the face of the coronavirus, it endangers the health and safety of thousands.”
“This is common-sense legislation that is needed to ensure federal employees also have the ability to telework as the federal government is encouraging Americans to stay at home,” Lankford said. “If federal employees have the ability to serve Americans from home during this time it is right to allow them to do so.”
But an OMB spokesperson said Tuesday that the administration already has provided clear and decisive guidance to agencies to encourage telework.
"By acting early and decisively, President Trump has ensured the government continues to be open and essential services are provided to the American public, including our most vulnerable," the spokesperson said. "The administration is doing exactly what’s being asked of the private sector—adhere to CDC’s guidelines for restricted attendance, maximum telework flexibilities, [and shuttering buildings where it’s possible to work remotely.”
The nation’s largest federal employee union on Monday called for similar language to be included as part of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus package that is being negotiated by lawmakers and the White House. The American Federation of Government Employees argued that any new coronavirus response legislation must “mandate telework” for all federal workers whose duties can be done remotely, and that those who must continue to commute to work should receive hazardous duty pay.
“Despite this growing pandemic, our members are coming to work every day to deliver essential services to the American people,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said. “Congress must in turn provide them at least basic health and safety protections, including personal protective equipment to help prevent the spread of this disease.”
This story has been updated to include comment from the Office of Management and Budget.
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