Director of Executive Office for Immigration Review James McHenry testifies before Congress last year.

Director of Executive Office for Immigration Review James McHenry testifies before Congress last year. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Immigration Review Office Remains Open Despite Potential COVID-19 Exposure

Most support staff at the Executive Office of Immigration Review in Falls Church, Va., remain unable to telework even after two floors had to be deep cleaned after an employee exhibited coronavirus symptoms at work last week.

The agency responsible for conducting removal proceedings in immigration courts still is not providing telework for many of its employees, even after an employee exhibited coronavirus symptoms at work.

On April 8, an employee on the 20th floor of the Executive Office of Immigration Review’s office in Falls Church, Va., which the agency shares with the Social Security Administration, had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, although the employee has not been tested for the virus.

As a result, employees on that floor and the 21st and 22nd floors were temporarily sent home on weather and safety leave until contractors could conduct a deep cleaning. The 21st and 22nd floor employees returned to work Friday, while the 20th floor reopened on Monday, except to those who came in contact with the employee, who are now undergoing a 14-day quarantine.

“I want to advise you that an EOIR employee working on the 20th floor of the Skyline Tower Building has displayed symptoms of COVID-19,” wrote Executive Office of Immigration Review Director James McHenry in an email to employees last week. “The employee is now self-quarantined for two weeks and all persons identified as close contacts have been advised of their interaction with the symptomatic employee. We are conducting an enhanced cleaning of the 20th and 21st floors and the building’s common areas in compliance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines.  The CDC guidance does not indicate that any additional EOIR spaces would require cleaning.”

An agency employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said that employees on the 17th floor were told that if they were uncomfortable continuing to work in the office, they would have to take personal leave. And they said that while the attorneys and paralegals may work remotely, the agency still is not allowing most support staff and clerks to telework, citing a lack of laptops.

“Unlike at the immigration judge level, we’re still fully operational,” the employee said. “There’s been no change, no modification to the way we’re operating. We’re 100% fully staffed and we have attorneys, paralegals and support staff.”

The office remains open despite guidance from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget urging agencies to “maximize telework” for employees wherever possible. Additionally, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee Lofthus directed Justice Department components to “move to a posture of maximum telework” in the Washington, D.C., region beginning March 16.

“Components should exploit all flexibilities in their telework policies, including adjusting duties and work to expand availability of telework to employees whose duties did not previously support telework, and even if the employee would only have enough duties to telework for part of a work day,” Lofthus wrote.

The EOIR employee said the agency has been resistant to implementing a continuity of operations plan that would prioritize detainee cases over non-detainee cases, as immigration courts have done to reduce the time needed to be in the office, and said they fear the agency is more concerned with “keeping up production numbers” than employees’ well-being.

“Why can’t we go into COOP status to minimize staff in the office?” the employee said. “We could go into only working detained cases, just like the courts, and we wouldn’t need as many staff. And with a smaller docket, maybe we could introduce rotations or stagger shifts. Right now the only option to stagger shifts is allowing some employees to work from 6 a.m. until 3 and then someone else could work later.”

The employee noted that, by comparison, when there was a positive coronavirus case among the Social Security Administration’s employees in the building, the agency completely evacuated the office, and employees have not returned since.

“Why did we come back to work so much faster [than Social Security]?” they asked. “SSA had one incident and they’re on 17 different floors, and they haven’t been back.”

The agency did not respond to a request for comment.