As White House Expands 'Maximum Telework' Across the Country, Many Employees Fear They Are Unprotected
VA health care workers want protections, administrative judges want closures and employee groups want answers.
Federal employees on the frontlines of the fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus and those throughout government are sounding the alarm that their agencies are not sufficiently protecting them, calling for significantly increased communication and action.
While White House guidance last week encouraged agencies to “maximize telework flexibilities” for eligible employees identified as at a “higher risk” for contracting the virus, it released a separate memo on Sunday calling for maximum flexibilities for all employees—regardless of risk—located in the Washington, D.C., area. That updated guidance left out 85% of the federal workforce who are located around the country, and they have begun to raise concerns. Additionally, many employees must still report to work each day, either due to the nature of the work or because they are directly involved in coronavirus response efforts, and they too have expressed concern they are not receiving the proper equipment and guidance to keep them safe. Employees at the Transportation Security Administration, National Institutes of Health, Defense Department and U.S. Postal Service have contracted the virus.
The National Treasury Employees Union on Monday called on the federal government to close all federal buildings across the country that house at least 50 employees, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations to end all large gatherings. NTEU National President Tony Reardon said that so far, agencies’ limited shift toward telework in some regions is simply not enough to keep workers and the public safe.
“The half-measures taken so far are not enough because too many government workers are still working in full or nearly full offices," Reardon said. "Closing buildings halts the large gatherings, just as CDC recommends, allows telework to continue and provides weather and safety leave—as opposed to personal leave—for those who have jobs that are not eligible for telework.”
Reardon also said that agencies should continue to expand telework to as many workers as possible, as well as provide administrative leave to workers’ whose children’s schools are closed or if they or their family members are otherwise in quarantine. And the government should make coronavirus tests available for free to any federal worker if their doctor recommends it. The American Federation of Government Employees also called the White House’s D.C. telework guidance inadequate.
On Monday morning, after that guidance was issued on Sunday evening, the White House sent out a memorandum through the President’s Management Council that the maximum telework flexibilities effectively applied across the country wherever an outbreak has cropped up. The White House instructed regional leaders in federal agencies located in any area with community spread of the novel coronavirus to take similar steps to those outlined in the National Capital Region guidance. That should include telework for anyone with an agreement, using authorities to push telework for those without an agreement and offering paid leave to those who cannot telework and are at a “higher risk” of contracting the virus. Like the capital region memo, it also suggested agencies consider staggered work schedules “and other operational mitigation measures.”
“It’s important that agencies offer maximum telework flexibilities to federal employees while still providing mission critical functions to serve the American people,” an Office of Management and Budget spokesperson said.
Despite the outstanding concerns and requests from federal employees and their advocates, Rachel Semmel, an OMB spokesperson, said after publication it was "completely misleading" to say employees across country "were not addressed."
"Last week, we encouraged agencies across the country to maximize telework flexibilities based on local health conditions," Semmel said. "Sunday, following that existing guidance, we expanded telework for Washington, D.C. area federal employees based on local conditions. OMB also reminded agencies of this authority to expand telework in their specific regions based on local conditions."
Employees at Risk
Several employee groups representing workers at the Veterans Affairs Department and said in a joint statement they were “deeply dismayed” by the Veteran Health Administration’s lack of preparations for the coronavirus outbreak. Facilities are short on necessary equipment, supplies and staffing, the groups said, and the department is refusing to engage in communication with employees’ unions. Irma Westmoreland, vice president of National Nurses United, said VA should provide its medical care workers with equipment that covers employees’ entire heads, necks and bodies “even if it’s more expensive and will require more education” on proper use.
“If our nurses and health care workers are not protected, that means our veteran patients, their families, and our wider community is not protected,” Westmoreland said.
The groups called on VA to implement protocols to ensure that anything not scientifically proven safe is not pursued, share information on cases within the system, communicate with unions, provide top-of-the-line equipment and training to use it, plan for a surge in COVID-19 patients and ensure adequate monitoring of any workers who come in contact with such patients. VA has seen five individuals confirmed to have COVID-19 and 25 more presumed to have it, with one death. The department has administered about 100 tests and instituted what it called “aggressive steps” to protect patients and staff, including closing its nursing homes and spinal cord injury centers to visitors, enhancing screenings of staff and encouraging telehealth options.
“Our members in the VA are frontline doctors, nurses and caregivers who have dedicated their lives to caring for veterans in communities across the nation,” said American Federation of Government Employees President Everett Kelly, adding they have critical experience to help make preparations. “It’s time for the VA to invite our members to the table . . . so we can finally work together on a solution that protects the health and safety of employees, veterans, and the public.”
The administration has also clashed with air travel employees, including TSA employees who demanded N95 masks, which are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. TSA declined to make those available and instead offered traditional surgical masks upon request. At least three TSA employees have contracted the virus. Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union that represents non-air traffic controller Federal Aviation Administration employees, said its requests for more information to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson have gone unanswered.
“If the agency won’t share contingency plans with the union and won’t be more proactive and transparent about what it is doing to protect employees, it is more difficult for PASS to assist with a successful recovery from this worldwide emergency,” said Mike Perrone, the union’s president.
FAA said in a statement the health and safety of its employees is its “top priority” and the agency has kept its workforce updated through avenues such as an employee webpage and a dedicated team.
A select few agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, have already instituted mandatory telework. Some sections of the State Department have gone to rotational and telework schedules. The Merit Systems Protection Board moved to mandatory telework on Monday. The agency has not issued a blanket cancellation of hearings for employees challenging adverse personnel actions taken against them by their agencies, instead proceeding on a case-by-case basis. Some tele-hearings are expected.
In other executive branch courtrooms, the Association of Administrative Law Judges has called on the Social Security Administration to take the unprecedented step of canceling all hearings. SSA has so far resisted widespread telework, and has dismissed calls to ask individuals with scheduled hearings if they would like to conduct their proceedings by phone. For non-field office or hearings-based staff SSA restored telework to the level in place before management instituted strict cuts earlier this month.
“We can’t understand why Social Security officials are blatantly ignoring public health guidance,” AALJ President Melissa McIntosh said. “Let’s always remember that many claimants in our hearing rooms and offices are senior citizens and report they have compromised immunity. They could be particularly at risk for the coronavirus.”
The AALJ’s request followed a similar one from the National Association of Immigration Judges, which called for all immigration courts to be temporarily shut down. The group said it would be a difficult decision, but one necessitated by the “extraordinary times.” Some hearings, it said, could take place telephonically.
“The Department of Justice’s current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is insufficient and not premised on transparent scientific information,” NAIJ said in conjunction with groups representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees and immigration lawyers. “The DOJ is failing to meet its obligations to ensure a safe and healthy environment within our immigration courts.”
Erich Wagner contributed to this report.
This story was updated to clarify the description of the White House guidance issued to agencies and with additional comment from OMB.
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