Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in June. Van Hollen is one of the senators advocating extra protections for feds.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in June. Van Hollen is one of the senators advocating extra protections for feds. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Senators Push for Continued Telework, Contractor Leave in COVID-19 Relief Talks

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As lawmakers continue negotiations over the next round of coronavirus response legislation, senators are pushing congressional leadership to include additional provisions protecting federal employees and contractors.

In a July 31 letter, a bipartisan group of 22 senators, led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to include language in the next COVID-19 relief bill that would provide a “clear mandate” that agencies and federal contractors continue to offer maximum telework to all eligible employees.

“All federal employees and contractors who can perform their duties remotely should be doing so,” they wrote. “Agencies should enable telework for as many federal workers and contractor personnel as possible, and should continue to maximize telework throughout the pandemic. Telework protects not only federal employees from the spread of COVID-19, but also their families and the communities across the country in which they work.”

The lawmakers also cautioned against ongoing efforts by some agencies to bring employees back to the office. In recent weeks, federal employee groups have decried efforts by the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency in particular to order workers back to federal facilities.

“As new waves of COVID-19 cases continue to hit areas across the country, it is especially important for federal agencies to have a clear mandate that sets a positive example for employers to keep their workforces and communities safe,” they wrote. “Plans to bring federal employees back into offices prematurely would threaten to erase the progress made against the coronavirus and increase community spread.”

And in a separate July 31 letter to McConnell and Schumer, senators representing states near Washington, D.C., called for the next coronavirus response legislation to include an extension of a provision in the CARES Act that reimburses federal contractors for paid leave granted in connection with the coronavirus pandemic and to standardize leave reimbursement rates. The letter was signed by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; and Van Hollen, and was first reported by Federal News Network.

“As the Senate begins the process of negotiating and considering the next coronavirus pandemic relief package, we urge you to extend the provision authorizing federal agencies to reimburse federal contractors for providing paid leave, including sick leave, to employees and subcontractors until Dec. 31, 2021,” they wrote. “In addition, we request language requiring the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to issue common standards for calculating reimbursable expenses to correct the patchwork that has developed across the government.”

The CARES Act authorizes agencies to change their contracts with companies to provide reimbursement for any paid leave provided by a contractor to keep its workforce in a “ready state.” But the provision is set to expire on Sept. 30.

“When Congress drafted the CARES Act, we had anticipated the pandemic would soon abate,” the senators wrote. “That has not borne out, and we must prepare for a longer term struggle. Given the uncertainty of another legislative opportunity to amend [the leave reimbursement provision] authority, we recommend providing maximum flexibility for its use and extending it until Dec. 31, 2021. Congress can separately consider an appropriate amount to provide in appropriations to meet the demonstrated need to maintain critical government capabilities in a ready state.”