Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.,  chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, speaks during a hearing in February.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, speaks during a hearing in February. Patrick Semansky/AP

House Democrat Asks Inspectors General to Review Agencies' Reopening Plans

"Your continued oversight is critical to protect the health and safety of our government’s most valuable resource: its federal workforce," Connolly wrote. 

A top House Democrat sent letters to 24 inspector general offices on Monday asking for their plans to oversee their agencies’ processes to return employees to federal buildings as the novel coronavirus pandemic subsides.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, sent the letters as agencies are taking steps to bring employees back to the office as states lift stay-at-home orders and go through their reopening phases. The Office of Personnel Management issued guidance in April saying there won’t be one return to work day as department leaders should coordinate with public health officials and local leaders to determine the best timing. Connolly said the Trump administration has displayed an “unwillingness to demonstrate sufficient concern about the health and welfare of our federal workforce,” during the pandemic, so involving IGs now is of the utmost importance. There are about 2.5 million federal employees and 3.7 million contractors and Connolly has a high concentration of them in his district. 

“Our federal workforce has demonstrated that it can continue to work effectively and serve this nation—even in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances,” Connolly wrote. “In return, federal management officials must employ the safest procedures in determining whether and when employees should return to their offices. We need to ensure that premature or misguided efforts to return to offices will not undercut efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and put federal employees and their families in danger.” 

He asked the IGs to develop assessment plans to review their agencies’ reopenings and then provide them to the subcommittee. Connolly encouraged the IGs to look at agencies’ use of evidence-based research to bring back employees, supplies of personal protective equipment and other resources, protocols for if and when employees test positive for the virus, and collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among other things. 

Connolly also asked acting Defense IG Sean O’Donnell to look into the death of one of his constituents: Chai Suthammanont, a food service worker at the Quantico Marine Corps Base. Suthammanont died on May 26 due to coronavirus complications. He is “one of the many frontline federal employees whose jobs required them to continue working onsite through the coronavirus pandemic,” the lawmaker wrote. “It is critical that we investigate whether the health and safety protocols at Quantico may have contributed to Chai’s death, in particular regarding policy disparities between different employees at the center, and how we can avoid future losses of life as we move to reopen federal workstations.” 

Connolly said OPM and the Office of Management and Budget ignored his subcommittee’s request for a briefing on the administration’s reopening guidelines and didn't address the concerns the subcommittee raised in letters sent on April 29 and May 15 in their joint response on June 2. 

On June 3, during his confirmation hearing to be permanent Office of Management and Budget director, Russell Vought (currently serving in an acting capacity) said the agency “did have our public health experts review the guidance” issued on April 20 on returning to workplaces and the White House coronavirus task force was also involved. He reiterated the importance of each agency having the flexibility to work with public health officials in their areas in a “decentralized” way. 

Connolly didn’t give the IGs a specific deadline, but asked for a “prompt reply.”