Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., led colleagues in an April 27 letter.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., led colleagues in an April 27 letter. Senate Television via AP

Senate Democrats Demand Answers from OPM on COVID-19 Response

Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said that for the last six weeks, the federal government’s HR agency has stonewalled requests for briefings related to its work responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee demanded that officials at the Office of Personnel Management provide answers on how they have been responding to the coronavirus pandemic, after agency staff members have repeatedly declined to brief lawmakers on their efforts.

Committee ranking member Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., led the lawmakers in an April 27 letter to acting OPM Director Michael Rigas. Peters said OPM officials have consistently “refused” to meet with lawmakers dating back to March 17, the day then-Director Dale Cabaniss resigned, reportedly over repeated interference from John McEntee, the 29-year-old head of the White House Personnel office.

“While we certainly understand the need to remain flexible during this dynamic situation, the fast-moving nature of this crisis makes it even more important for the agency to be responsive to congressional requests,” the senators wrote. “We must have a clear idea of what OPM’s policies are and how OPM is supporting implementation of those policies across the federal government in order to conduct necessary oversight and fully represent our constituents’ needs.”

The lawmakers noted that although OPM has put out a number of memos on matters like telework, leave, hazard pay and other workplace flexibilities, agencies have implemented those policies to varying degrees.

“While OPM has issued extensive guidance to federal agencies and the federal workforce, it is not clear how the agency is working to harmonize this guidance across agencies, leaving federal employees and contractors without clear information about their access to paid leave and telework,” the senators wrote.

They asked OPM to explain how it is harmonizing implementation of its guidance across the federal government, particularly when it comes to telework and paid leave, as well as how OPM is helping agencies to scale up their IT capacity for telework. They also demanded answers on how OPM is involved in agencies’ efforts to secure and distribute personal protective equipment like masks and gloves to frontline workers.

“Has OPM been in regular contact with the vice president’s supply chain taskforce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, [the Office of Management and Budget] or other agencies as appropriate to ensure that federal workers have access to the critical supplies, including facial masks needed to protect the workforce?” they asked. “What additional steps does OPM plan to take to ensure that federal employees across the government have PPE?”

The committee members requested that OPM include a section in its fiscal 2020 telework report on the impact of COVID-19 on the practice and an assessment of the effectiveness of OPM and OMB’s guidance and actions.

“As the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the civilian federal workforce, we have a responsibility to oversee OPM’s handling of this situation,” they wrote. “We hope that we can expect much greater cooperation from OPM in the coming weeks and months. While we appreciate the voluntary guidance provided to federal agencies, guidance on its own is not enough, and OPM should be closely monitoring and working with agencies to ensure they are taking every possible step to protect the health and safety of their employees.”