Agencies Will Still Have ‘Their Own Parameters’ on Returning to the Office Amid COVID Surge
There is no new guidance on reentry to workplaces, other than updates to reflect the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
As coronavirus cases rise dramatically nationwide with the Omicron variant, individual federal agencies still have the discretion to determine who does and doesn’t have to come into the office, the Biden administration said Tuesday.
So far studies have shown Omicron is less severe than other variants, but it is still highly contagious and cases in the D.C. area where many agencies are headquartered have increased by 987% in the past two weeks, NBC4 reported on Tuesday. While White House officials have said several times that a lockdown is not going to happen, many schools, businesses, stores and restaurants have been reverting back to the ways of spring 2020. Back then the federal government went into a maximum telework posture, for those employees who were able to perform their duties without being in the office. However, the return to office process has been less uniform recently due to the different needs and conditions of geographic areas and agencies.
Government Executive asked the Office of Management and Budget, which is one of the member agencies of the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, for comment on how the rise in cases could affect the return to office process for federal employees and if the task force will be issuing any updated guidance about the surge in COVID cases with Omicron.
“Safer Federal Workforce Task Force guidance regarding reentry has not changed in recent weeks. The task force will continue to follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance,” said an OMB official on background on Tuesday. “For example, the task force will update its guidance to reflect [Monday’s] update to CDC guidance on quarantine and isolation.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the most recent update from the task force came on December 9, which was for federal contractors in light of the nationwide injunction on their vaccine mandate.
While the Biden White House has issued various forms of guidance on the return to office process over the months, it has been up to agencies to ultimately make the decisions on which employees will remain remote and which will come back. The process has been altered and changed due to the spread of the Delta variant, the policy requiring employees to either attest they had been vaccinated or be subject to restrictions, and then the vaccine mandate for federal employees.
Also, in the first major update to the federal government’s telework policy in the past decade issued in November, the Office of Personnel Management encouraged telework and other workplace flexibilities post-pandemic.
“Each agency has their own parameters for who works in person—based on the type of work they do and agency mission needs — and when and how to have workers come into the office, work in the field, or work from home,” the OMB official continued. “Those determinations in the coming weeks and months are shaped in part by operational considerations as agencies move large numbers of workers in a safe and orderly manner from full-time telework to updated work arrangements that blend in-person work with telework and alternative work schedules where appropriate.”
Overall, “these plans reflect a commitment to the wellbeing of the federal workforce as a key aspect of mission delivery, with consideration for issues like dependent care and transportation,” said the OMB official.
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement to Government Executive on Tuesday: “We continue to request that federal agencies be mindful of the rising cases across the country, continue maximum telework and delay returning additional employees to federal worksites until the pandemic eases.”
As 2021 comes to an end, “most of the federal agencies where NTEU represents employees have delayed any return to worksites and are bargaining with the union over expanded telework programs and returning employees to a safe workplace,” he said. The union represents about 150,000 federal employees across 34 departments and agencies.
When asked for comment, the Office of Personnel Management referred to OMB on behalf of the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.
The surge in COVID-19 cases, which has coincided with holiday travel, has led to shortages in COVID-19 tests. President Biden announced actions last week to boost production and availability of tests, but they will take some time.