USDA Allows Voluntary Telework Following Positive Coronavirus Test at Headquarters

The Agriculture Department has closed a section of its main office in Washington for "deep cleaning."

The Agriculture Department told employees Sunday that it would immediately expand its policy to allow “maximized telework” from Tuesday until early April, following the revelation that an employee in its Washington, D.C., headquarters tested positive for coronavirus.

According to an email obtained by Government Executive, an employee who works on the second floor, sixth wing of the south building of the department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. The employee has not been in the office since March 11. The department confirmed the authenticity of the email, and said it has since closed that area of the building for deep cleaning.

“On Sunday, March 15, a USDA employee in the National Capital Region informed USDA that they received a positive test result for coronavirus,” a USDA spokesperson said. “That same day, USDA notified employees who work in close proximity to the employee that they should begin teleworking immediately to help ensure the safety and health of our employees. Access to the affected area of the facility has been closed off and the area is being sanitized and deep cleaned in accordance with CDC guidance.”

The department also instructed managers in the Washington, Seattle, California Bay and New York City regions to develop plans to “maximize telework” among employees with existing telework agreements.

“In keeping with the need to ensure mission continuity and the continued delivery of USDA's services to the American people, supervisors at facilities in locations with documented community spread of COVID-19 have been authorized to develop plans for maximizing telework for telework-eligible employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 through Friday, April 3, 2020,” wrote Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky. “This includes the National Capital Region, Washington State, California Bay area, and New York City area where all USDA offices will remain open and operational even as we move to maximize the use of telework. This timing will be assessed continually as the COVID-19 situation evolves.”

Despite the “maximum telework” mandate, many department employees still will be required to commute to work, and any decision to expand telework that “would impact the operational status of a facility or impact the services delivered” must be pre-approved by department leadership.

“Again, the continued delivery of our services to the American people must be maintained as supervisors make decisions on maximizing telework, and USDA offices are to remain open,” Censky wrote. “Due to the diversity of USDA's operations and the services we deliver, many employees will need to continue to report to work to perform functions that cannot be performed remotely, and some employees may be able to work from home several days a week, but not every day, due to our service responsibilities. In granting expanded telework, supervisors should ensure the ability to maintain mission continuity and services.”

Last week, the department authorized workplace flexibilities for employees whose children’s school is closed and for those in high risk populations, including providing them with weather and safety leave.

The department did not respond to questions regarding why it took so long for officials to authorize expanded telework. In 2018, the department sharply cut down on the availability of telework to from four days to one day per week.