Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, supply chain task force lead at FEMA, listens as President Trump speaks at the White House on April 13 about the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, supply chain task force lead at FEMA, listens as President Trump speaks at the White House on April 13 about the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex Brandon/AP

Office of Special Counsel to Federal Employees: We’re Here to Protect You

As the office takes steps to protect its own employees, OSC has created a coronavirus task force to handle the rise in whistleblower disclosures and charges of retaliation.

During this harrowing time, when our country faces an invisible enemy bent on upending all sense of normalcy, the concept of leadership has taken on new meaning. When I was nominated by President Trump to head the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a small independent federal agency charged with protecting federal workers’ rights, I knew there would be challenges. From safeguarding the federal employment merit system, to protecting civilian employment rights of our military servicemen, to enforcing the Hatch Act in the age of social media, OSC faces myriad difficult decisions every day. But never did I imagine that I would need to add crisis management to my daily tasks.

I am proud that OSC has risen to the occasion and remains open for business. OSC is responsible for receiving disclosures from federal employee whistleblowers that often involve health and safety issues. With the appearance of COVID-19, the number of such disclosures filed with OSC, as well as related complaints of retaliation, has risen over the past few weeks. In response, I established an internal coronavirus taskforce to enhance communication across our multiple units handling these cases. This coordinated effort has ensured the swift assessment of COVID-related disclosures and rapid referral for investigation in appropriate cases. Our employees are keenly aware that their efficient handling of these disclosures could save lives. 

Like with other agencies and businesses around the world, OSC’s employees have had to adapt to the evolving circumstances. In mid-March, we followed guidance from the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force by moving to full-time, precautionary, mandatory telework. All our employees are now working safely and remotely from their homes, which comes with its own unique challenges.

To ease the burden on our employees, we have implemented policies to maximize telework flexibilities, understanding that they face very different individual situations. For example, we recently implemented a policy, consistent with federal guidelines, that allows our staff to request “evacuation leave,” authorizing those with children or other dependents who no longer have care to request additional leave. We are also scheduling a speaker to provide useful coping strategies and ways in which employees can take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program. We hope this will prove to be a valuable resource for managers and employees to improve their mental health and emotional well-being during mandatory telework.

Perhaps most importantly, we have emphasized staying connected to one another and maintaining open communication. I have always had an open-door policy. Now a virtual door, I have encouraged staff to reach out to me or their managers to talk about anything, whether it be questions about work, a family situation, or just a friendly conversation about how they’re doing.

To help stay connected, we have embraced video conferencing and encourage our unit chiefs to utilize the video function for online meetings. Seeing each other’s faces is important for effective communication. In addition, we are trying to have some fun by sharing lighthearted stories. Since telework began, we revised the format of our agency-wide news clips to be a weekly newsletter. We solicit updates and photos from staff to share with their colleagues. Participation is completely voluntary, but the response has been tremendous. Contributions have included everything from photos of pets, to creative haircuts, recipes, and television and movie recommendations.

These are all small steps, but taken together, they provide a framework of mutual support that improves employee morale and productivity.

Make no mistake, OSC—and our nation—will continue to face unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. But the sacrifices we make now will undoubtedly help to save lives. I am confident that the steps we are taking now, as an agency and as a country, will help facilitate a speedy recovery, and America will come out stronger on the other side.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is an independent, executive agency charged with protecting the merit system. Appointed by President Trump, Kerner has been Special Counsel since October 2017.

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