OPM headquarters.

OPM headquarters. Jacquelyn Martin / AP

OPM Failed to Notify Employees of Coworker COVID Infections, Require Mask-Wearing, IG Says

The watchdog said many of the problems related to the agency’s coronavirus response have been solved by a new workforce safety plan finalized earlier this year.

Officials at the Office of Personnel Management last year did not adequately inform employees when one of their colleagues contracted or was suspected of having COVID-19, and failed to institute a mask mandate for much of the pandemic, an agency watchdog reported Thursday.

The OPM Office of the Inspector General published a report analyzing the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, finding officials fell short in a number of areas. In addition to failing to adequately inform employees of COVID-19 “incidents,” the agency failed to adequately document post-incident workplace cleaning or cleaning of “high contact” areas of its Washington, D.C., headquarters. The inspector general also said the agency needed more signage regarding social distancing and other ways to mitigate spread of the disease.

Of the 72 cases where an employee was confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 while in the office, the inspector general sampled 10 to review. Of those 10 cases, investigators could not find documentation that employees who shared space or worked in the areas of exposure were notified in a timely manner, and in three of the 10 cases, they could not confirm that the employee’s workspace was cleaned and disinfected quickly.

In OPM’s response to the inspector general, the agency provided additional documentation that officials said would explain that employees were informed and the areas were, in fact, cleaned. But the inspector general disagreed.

“In our analysis of the additional information OPM provided to address the cases we identified, we still did not find sufficient support that actual notification occurred,” the inspector general wrote. “For the six cases identified, OPM management provided documentation that showed discussions of the incidents. However, we were not provided documentation that showed employees were notified.”

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described masks as a “critical tool” for preventing transmission of the virus, the inspector general found that OPM failed to institute a mask mandate until after President Biden’s inauguration.

“The [facilities, security and emergency management] director explained that although face coverings are recommended by the CDC and supported by OPM’s leadership, they are not required at OPM facilities,” the report stated. “[According] to the FSEM director, OPM ordered and distributed cloth face coverings and disposable face masks to OPM facilities to make them available to employees (if they would like to wear them) such as the security staff, staff who engage with the public, staff who provide services to building occupants, or other staff identified by department heads ... However, during our walkthrough of [the agency headquarters], we saw multiple workers and security guards without face coverings.”

Despite issuing several recommendations to improve the agency’s performance, the inspector general’s office already closed all of those suggestions, finding that they have all been addressed as part of OPM’s updated workplace safety plan, which was developed following a Biden executive order instructing all federal agencies to come up with new pandemic safety plans.

In a statement, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who first requested the investigation last June, said the inspector general’s findings are the result of efforts by the Trump administration to minimize the dangers of COVID-19 at the expense of the federal workforce.

“This report is a stunning indictment of the Trump administration’s reckless, rushed, and ultimately dangerous plans to return federal employees to the workplace in the middle of the pandemic,” he said. “It was a total failure of leadership, where civil servants were treated like political pawns by President Trump.”

In a statement, OPM spokeswoman Shelby Wagenseller said the current administration is focused on keeping federal employees safe and will follow the advice of experts.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to the safety of the federal workforce and has made decisions during the pandemic based on the best-available guidance from scientists and public health experts,” she said. “We look forward to the continued collaboration of political and career leadership in developing and implementing our agency safety plan.”