Although some agencies have stepped up to protect their workforces as the novel coronavirus outbreak widens, many federal employees report a resistance to remote work and a lack of basic sanitary measures.
Many federal workers remain fearful that they or their customers may contract the novel coronavirus, as agencies appear reluctant to take basic precautions to slow the spread of the virus, despite increasingly urgent recommendations from federal human resources and health agencies that they move quickly to expand workforce flexibilities like telework.
This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services all greatly expanded telework in light of the looming threat of coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. But officials with federal employee unions said these agencies are still the exception, not the rule.
Last weekend, the Office of Personnel Management issued renewed guidance, again encouraging agencies to sign as many employees as possible into telework agreements along with other flexibilities like alternate work schedules so that if offices need to close, government operations can continue.
But National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon told reporters Thursday that most agencies where his members work have not followed suit.
“We’ve been urging these steps for weeks now,” he said. “We offered our assistance, and then we gave them the time and space to get it done. But I’m sorry to say that today, the overall government effort to protect employees has fallen far short. Too many are still working in crowded offices, taking public transportation, and remain in the dark about what happens if schools close or a coworker develops symptoms.”
Reardon said that although some agencies have developed steps like adjusting employees’ schedules so that fewer people are in the office at any given time, officials’ heels appear to remain dug in on telework. He noted that despite OPM’s directive to sign more people up to telework, the Health and Human Services Department as recently as Wednesday was still denying new applications to sign up for the program among its own employees.
“We just got reports of this yesterday, where employees are putting in telework requests and they’re being denied,” Reardon said. “I think it’s incredible that, with what’s going on, the [World Health Organization] and the president identified what we’re going through as a pandemic, that an agency would have such little regard for its employees to deny them telework. I find that absolutely astonishing.”
An HHS spokesperson did not specifically address Reardon’s allegations that the department is disregarding OPM guidance, but said the department is closely monitoring the situation along with state and local officials.
“OPM guides all federal agencies regarding workforce flexibilities, including telework, and has put out telework guidance related to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said. “This response to COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation and HHS is working with state and local health officials to ensure that all proper workplace flexibilities are utilized to protect our employees.”
Although the Social Security Administration this week restored recently cut telework at two local offices in Seattle and White Plains, N.Y., Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, which represents employees at the agency’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, said the agency has otherwise been completely unresponsive.
“SEC and USCIS have expanded telework for their employees; we’ve got Fortune 500 companies that have done it for their employees, and there are states of emergencies declared by state and local governments,” Couture said. “But SSA has taken the position that it knows better than the experts advising other agencies, other countries and other entities regarding social distancing, telework expansion and alternative service delivery.”
Couture said that it’s particularly important for Social Security to act quickly, because its customer base is primarily older and sicker Americans, who are more susceptible to the worst outcomes of the virus. A significant number of employees also have conditions that put them at greater risk, he said.
“The agency’s lack of action and lack of a plan is putting the visiting public at risk, as well as putting its employees at risk,” Couture said. “To date, nothing has come down to advise employees or the visiting public of the steps SSA is taking to mitigate the risk of infection. Aside from the action taken to restore the prior telework programs in Seattle and White Plains, the only step [the agency] has taken was a half measure . . . called work at home for quarantine, which is intended to allow telework for employees who are quarantined as a result to potential exposure to the virus, but that’s it, and it’s only for the quarantine period.”
The Social Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment.
At the Veterans Affairs Department, employees at regional offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration said they were subject to mixed messages. At some locations, operations continued normally, while others told all employees who spent some time on telework to work remotely full time. In at least two locations, however, those decisions were reversed by VBA's central office in Washington, after officials stressed the need for a unified response and to test IT capacity. Christina Mandreucci, a VA spokesperson, said VBA's priorities are employee and veteran safety, while maintaining operational readiness.
"Regional office directors are encouraged to make decisions regarding workplace flexibilities based on the circumstances in their communities which differ across the country and are continually changing, Mandreucci said, while adding that "directors are being asked to discuss plans with VBA central office leadership to ensure coordination across the country."
At the Defense Department, civilian workers reported feeling trapped by managers forcing them into telework agreements, despite OPM's guidance specifically noting the agreements should only be struck with employees "who are willing to participate." Employees said they were disenchanted by the likelihood that the ability to telework would no longer stand after the coronavirus outbreak dissipated.
Reardon said the problem goes further than telework. At some Internal Revenue Service offices, the agency reportedly has not made sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer or protective gloves available to employees responsible for opening the thousands of documents sent in as part of tax filing season.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories over the last day or so, where employees don’t have access to the personal protective equipment they need,” he said. “They don’t have access to wipes and hand sanitizers and gloves. At IRS, you have a lot of people opening mail and handling tax documents, so this is a real concern for them.”
Although agencies may be privately monitoring the situation and considering options to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, Reardon said officials need to make it clear they are, in fact, taking action.
“I’m often asked about the morale of the federal workforce, so let me answer that for you right now, here, today: The answer is it is very, very low,” he said. “There is clearly no one single cookie-cutter approach to ensure the health and safety of federal employees, but we need to empower managers and supervisors to make decisions in the best interest of employees and the American public.”
Eric Katz contributed to this story.