The Office of Management and Budget "encouraged" agencies to sign up federal workers that are members of high-risk populations for telework, and to coordinate with state and local institutions.
The White House on Friday echoed calls from the Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and urged federal agencies to expand telework eligibility to some federal workers to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In a memo to agency heads, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought “encouraged” agencies to expand the availability of telework to federal workers who are most at risk for the most serious symptoms of the virus.
“All federal executive branch departments and agencies are encouraged to maximize telework flexibilities to eligible workers within those populations that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified as at being at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19 and to CDC-identified special populations including pregnant women,” Vought wrote. “These CDC-identified populations include older adults and individuals who have chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease or compromised immune systems.”
Although ordinarily, agencies require employees to provide certification from a medical professional that they need special accommodations, Vought wrote that workers may skip that step and “self-identify” as a member of a high-risk population.
Vought stopped short of fully endorsing OPM’s recommendation that agencies should sign up “as many employees as possible” for telework, but suggested that agencies work with state and local partners to consider expanding telework to all workers.
“Agencies are encouraged to consult with local public health officials and the CDC about whether to extend telework flexibilities more broadly to all eligible teleworkers in areas in which either such local officials or the CDC have determined there is community spread,” he wrote. “Agencies are also encouraged to extend telework flexibilities more broadly to accommodate state and local responses to the outbreak, including, but not limited to, school closures.”
Despite repeated urging from OPM and the CDC, many agencies have been slow to embrace telework as a method to maintain operations and slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But that dynamic might be beginning to shift, as more and more companies, school districts and public events are postponed.
In an email to employees Thursday night, Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul acknowledged that employees have been frustrated by the lack of information from leadership and suggested changes were in the offing.
“I know that you are anxious for additional information about our evolving plans to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Saul wrote. “Events have been rapidly changing. We are working to quickly update you as things evolve, as there are many issues we must consider for both you and the public.”
Saul noted the recent restoration of telework at the agency’s Seattle and White Plains, N.Y., offices, and said officials are “finalizing changes on several topics, including the expanded use of telework to continue service during this difficult time.”
But a trio of Democratic senators said Saul still isn’t acting quickly enough. In a letter to the commissioner, Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said they were “deeply concerned” about the paucity of the agency’s response to the outbreak.
“We strongly urge SSA to grant telework requests now, to the greatest extent practicable, to all employees who are able to perform their duties outside of the office,” they wrote. “SSA should also maximize the availability and awareness of online, telephone and other remote services that can be used in lieu of in-person meetings and hearings. At an absolute minimum, SSA should immediately rescind its recent cuts to telework programs for Operations, Analytics Review and Oversight, Hearings Operations, and other components. Cutting telework during a public health emergency makes no sense.”