Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., wants to ensure employees are protected from the novel coronavirus upon return.
A top Senate Democrat is seeking reopening plans from 24 federal agencies to ensure employees are protected from the novel coronavirus upon their return to the office.
In April, the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management issued joint reopening guidance that put much of the decision-making responsibility on individual agencies to move away from maximum telework during the pandemic. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in letters to the agencies on Tuesday that he agrees “such flexibility is necessary,” but that “transparency is equally important to ensure that agencies are reopening in accordance with the best public health guidance.” Therefore, Peters outlined a list of questions he would like answered by July 24.
“While the country faces an unprecedented public health crisis and accompanying economic recession, it is more important than ever that the federal government stands ready to serve the American people,” Peters wrote. “It can only do so effectively if agencies protect the health and safety of federal employees and the communities they serve.” His inquiries include:
- What is the overall plan for reopening?
- How, if at all, are local or regional officials involved in the process?
- Will plans be public? If not, why?
- Did OMB, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the General Services Administration and/or the Homeland Security Department review the plans? If so, what were their responses?
- Did you consult with your union or collective bargaining unit?
- If applicable, how will you engage in post-implementation bargaining?
- Will telework and leave flexibilities remain?
The letters went to the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs departments; Environmental Protection Agency; NASA; U.S. Agency for International Development; GSA; National Science Foundation; Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Small Business Administration; OPM and Social Security Administration.
Various federal agencies have begun the process of returning employees to workplaces. However, last week several Democratic senators urged OPM and OMB to instruct agencies to reverse course due to spikes in coronavirus cases across the country.
“Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread,” wrote Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; and Mark Warner, D-Va.
There have already been several issues. For example, at the end of June, the Defense Department started “phase two,” which allowed up to 80% of employees to return. As of July 10, there was a 35% spike in coronaviruses cases in the civilian workforce.
Also, the EPA has started bringing employees back to its offices across the country, but has since been battling with the American Federation of Government Employees, which claims the agency has not been transparent in its reopening calculations and, therefore, is putting employees at risk. The agency contends that the union has been misrepresenting its communications and it is taking a responsible approach to bringing employees back.
Earlier this month, the EPA IG began a “self-initiated” review of the process, but noted it was one of 24 IG offices the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government operations asked to review agencies’ return-to-office plans.
Eric Katz contributed to this report.