The Federal Government's Internal Health Clinics Won't Help Test Employees for COVID-19, Despite New Mandate
Managers throughout government said they have not been provided any support to implement the testing requirement.
The government is not providing COVID-19 testing to its employees at the federally run clinics positioned throughout the country, despite a new mandate requiring the tests for unvaccinated workers.
Leadership at Federal Occupational Health, a division of the Health and Human Services Department that serves more than 350 agencies and 1.5 million employees, has told federal managers that COVID-19 testing is too expensive and laborious for it to conduct at any of its facilities. Some managers who spoke to Government Executive said they approached Federal Occupational Health after the Biden administration announced a requirement that all federal employees either attest that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to at least weekly testing.
Recent guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force—created by President Biden via executive order and led by the White House, General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management—suggested that agencies could rely on occupational health clinics to provide the testing. Leadership at the federal clinics told the managers that the agency was not consulted on the task force's guidance.
A Federal Occupational Health official repeatedly said the agency “did not want to pursue that line of business,” one federal supervisor said after a conference call with its top leadership. The official stressed the task force’s guidance said testing may be available through the occupational health clinics, but did not require it.
A second federal worker said the health agency stressed that it would have taken months to stand up a testing program and required extensive work to credential its employees to conduct tests. Federal Occupational Health is staffed by the U.S. Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps, as well as Health and Human Services Department civil servants. Officials also told the manager that it would be overly costly to provide the testing.
Both supervisors said employees within their agencies were rejected from receiving any care—such as a temperature check—that could be related to COVID-19 ever since the outset of the pandemic. They noted the clinics would normally provide services such as drawing blood and annual flu shots. Federal Occupational Health, created by Congress in 1946, boasts on its website that it provides a "comprehensive array of services [that] helps agencies promote workplace health, wellness and safety." HHS declined to comment for this story.
Managers throughout government are raising concerns about the testing requirement, saying they have not been provided with sufficient guidance or resources to implement it. The Government Managers Coalition, consisting of five associations that represent federal supervisors, said in a recent letter to the task force that their needs during the pandemic have received "scant attention" from the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House.
“Failure by the administration to ensure agencies are properly equipping and empowering federal leaders to implement and execute the guidance and directives coming from the administration undermines its own objectives and priorities," wrote the group, which represents more than 250,000 federal managers. The letter added that the coalition's members will "bear the brunt of challenges" to those policies and noted some are now spending a large portion of their work days performing clerical duties.
The group said members were particularly concerned over funding for COVID-19 testing, as the White House previously clarified agencies would have to rely on existing funds to set up the testing programs. Members of the managers group are not "trained nor equipped" to oversee screening protocols and should be protected by the administration when enforcing new requirements, the letter stated. Agencies are issuing inconsistent messages and policies, it added.
“We need a clear, authoritative, singlesource message that is crystal clear and available for managers to use,” the coalition wrote.
OMB did not respond to a request to comment.
The managers coalition members said federal supervisors are taking demotions to avoid their new responsibilities and many employees are declining to take promotions into management.
“We cannot continue the same failed approach of tossing vague, general guidance at agencies in the hopes they can work out the kinks,” said Bob Corsi, president of the Senior Executives Association. “This only causes disparate impacts and duplicative work. The federal government must prioritize leadership so federal managers have the tools to truly succeed and respond to the needs of employees and the public.”