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OPM Offers Tips for Agencies to Help Teleworking Feds with Caregiving

The federal government’s HR agency encouraged agencies to be flexible with employees who have children or other relatives they must care for with school and other care facilities closed.

The Office of Personnel Management last week highlighted a number of ways that agencies can “deal with” employees who are juggling telework and caring for children and other relatives because schools and other care centers are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

OPM said that it and the Office of Management and Budget have both received “numerous questions” about the issue in recent days. Ordinarily, federal workers who work remotely may not conduct government business while caring for a child at home and thus must take leave for the time they miss.

Although issuing weather and safety leave would not be appropriate in most instances, OPM said there are a number of other ways to meet both agencies’ and employees’ needs.

OPM encouraged agencies to establish flexible work schedules, whereby employees are allowed to work longer each day to compensate for time spent caring for a loved one, or designating periods of time each day during which employees can either work or engage in care as needed.

“A [flexible work schedule] consists of workdays with core hours and flexible hours,” OPM wrote. “Core hours are the designated period of the day when employees must be present for work (including telework). Flexible hours are the part of the workday when employees may (within limits or ‘bands’) choose their time of arrival and departure and break periods.”

Under a flexible work schedule, employees conceivably could work longer hours in exchange for working fewer days each week. Or they could work fewer hours in exchange for putting time in on the weekend.

Although OPM discouraged agencies from granting excused absences or administrative leave under their traditional authorities to do so, the HR agency encouraged officials to consider granting excused absences under certain circumstances through evacuation pay, an authority recently green lit for use due to the declaration of a pandemic.

“Pursuant to OPM’s evacuation pay regulations, an agency that has issued an evacuation order has the authority to determine what and how much work evacuated employees are expected to perform—‘Evacuated employees at safe havens may be assigned to perform work considered necessary or required to be performed during the period of the evacuation,’ ” OPM wrote. “This work assignment authority allows an agency to grant an excused absence for non-work periods.”

OPM encouraged agencies to provide “limited amounts” of excused absences through this authority in cases where a federal employee has a child whose schools or childcare arrangements have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Such absences also could be provided if a worker must care for an adult child or parent with special needs and their usual daytime caregiver is unavailable.

Officials stressed that this tool should not be used to circumvent the use of other types of leave.

“Excused absence under the evacuation pay authority is not a substitute for regular sick leave in cases where a federal employee would otherwise appropriately use sick leave,” they wrote. “This excused absence authority is directed at situations where sick leave is not available to address the circumstance.”