The Government Is Failing to Notify Employees of COVID Cases in Their Buildings or Ensure Cleaning, IG Says

The approach is "threatening the health and safety of federal workers, contractors, building occupants and the public," lawmaker said.

The federal government’s property manager has failed to stay informed on coronavirus outbreaks in its buildings or notify workers when it does find out about positive cases, according to a new report. 

The General Services Administration has not consistently received notifications when federal buildings under its jurisdiction record a positive COVID-19 case, as required by its own policies. In a sample audit, the GSA inspector general found building tenants sometimes took up to a week to notify GSA of the tests. GSA, through its Public Buildings Service, owns or leases most of the buildings federal agencies occupy. 

In a management alert to the agency, the IG also cited GSA for failing to notify all building occupants of COVID-19 cases. GSA policy requires the agency to notify all tenants of an infection in their building within 24 hours, but the IG found one incident in which the agency did not inform the building occupants for 16 days. In another case, the notification process took seven days. Under its policy, GSA should utilize facility managers, regional administrators and tenant agencies to spread the details of all infections. If an agency refused to notify staff, the Public Building Service commissioner should intervene and find a resolution. PBS failed to implement this approach, however, leading to delays in notifications. 

The IG said GSA had updated its policy so it instead only had to notify designated points of contact, but the auditors still faulted the agency for failing to “provide timely notification of positive COVID-19 cases as required” and said it should still ensure all employees in the building are notified. Some agencies have suggested they would not notify employees about cases within their work spaces. 

PBS created a checklist specifically for custodial services during the pandemic, but the IG found it is not providing any oversight of its cleaning contractors to ensure they are disinfecting federal buildings. The agency said it required contractors to submit a pandemic plan but faced no obligation to modify its contracts or oversight of them. 

“PBS’s reliance on a contractor supplied pandemic plan does not absolve PBS of its responsibility to inspect work and ensure that it is performed in accordance with PBS and CDC guidance,’ the IG said. “Accordingly, PBS should review, enhance, and modify contractor oversight plans to ensure that contractors are performing COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection services in accordance with PBS and CDC guidance.”

The IG finished its audit of select federal buildings in May, but said the issues remain relevant. 

“As the cases continue to occur across the country and federal employees return to facilities in greater numbers, it is critical that PBS follow its own procedures and engage in close coordination with its tenant agencies in order to limit exposure to and spread of COVID-19,” the IG said. 

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s panel on Government Operations, called it “unconscionable” that GSA did not promptly notify employees of COVID-19 cases in their buildings. 

“This alert memorandum demonstrates the risk of this administration’s failure to have a coherent and universal plan for reopening the federal government,” Connolly said. “This patchwork approach has resulted in a failure to clearly and quickly share positive COVID-19 cases, threatening the health and safety of federal workers, contractors, building occupants, and the public.”