There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and showcased the long-term inequalities in access to health and health outcomes in the United States. On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office published a blog about some of these disparities in the healthcare system (in maternal mortality, veterans’ health and environmental factors) and it’s recommendations for federal agencies to address them. Here are some of other recent headlines you might have missed.
The Treasury Department said on Monday it would not be further extending the tax-filing deadline from July 15 to October 15. On Tuesday, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Chuck Rettig testified before the Senate Finance Committee about the agency’s operations during the pandemic. “While we had to adjust and redeploy resources during the pandemic, our employees have remained dedicated to delivering the 2020 filing season as they continued to process electronic payments, issue direct deposit refunds and accept electronic payments,” he said. “As of June 19, we have processed more than 126 million individual returns and we’ve issued more than 93 million refunds totaling more than $256 billion.”
The IRS is doing a phased reopening of offices nationwide “when and where it is safe to do so,” Rettig said. “We have had more than 50,000 employees teleworking and don’t anticipate significant changes in the foreseeable future.” Also, in catching up in the mail backlog the agency is prioritizing processing paper tax returns.
The American Federation of Government Employees contested the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to open regional offices in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday. The union and the agency have been disagreeing for weeks over the process to bring employees back to workplaces nationwide. “EPA workers feel as though they are the test subjects for the federal government's reopening, while the administration uses a crisis to undermine their decades of work, said the union in an email to the press on Monday. “Throughout the pandemic, EPA has used its workers’ safety concerns as a bogus excuse to cut down on enforcement; but is now putting workers’ lives at risk when they work proficiently at home.”
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said on Fox News on Monday that “we will not be social distancing” at the president’s Fourth of July fireworks event above Mount Rushmore on Friday. Mount Rushmore, in Keystone, South Dakota, is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents current, former and retired employees, criticized the plans last week. In addition to environmental concerns, “it jeopardizes the health and safety of NPS employees, volunteers, concession workers, visitors, and residents of the gateway communities.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on conducting elections during the pandemic using input from the Election Assistance Commission. The EAC is the only federal agency dedicated solely to election administration and has been advising state election officials, voting system vendors and federal agencies on how to mitigate public health risks during voting.
While officials involved with “Operation Warp Speed” to develop a coronavirus vaccine are confident the administration will develop one by the end of the year, outside experts as well as some at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority remain skeptical. Also, as the federal government pours $10 billion into the project, other issues are arising, according to a Politico report. “The White House coronavirus task force has dramatically scaled back its meetings, leaving the public awareness effort as a side show rather than the dominant presence it was earlier in the crisis,” Politico reported on Tuesday. “Scientists inside HHS say they're confused by the rapidly changing organizational structure and the role of the outside consultants now dotting the health department.”
Top members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to the Health and Human Services Department on Monday with concerns it is sidelining the CDC. Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., committee chairman, and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, cited reports on the administration preventing the CDC from communicating directly with the public, obstructing CDC reopening guidance, interfering with travel recommendations and contradicting its public health guidance. They asked for answers to a list of questions by July 15.
The Senate passed bipartisan legislation on Monday that will increase the caps of HHS’s repatriation program from $1 million to $10 million in order to help Americans who were brought back from abroad during the pandemic. The legislation also ensures that “only those [employees] with proper training and personal protective equipment engage directly with those repatriated due to COVID-19,” said a press release.
On Monday, three House committee chairs sent letters to the Office of Management and Budget, HHS, EPA, U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department asking them to fully cooperate with GAO’s review of the administration’s hold on funding for the World Health Organization. “On numerous occasions, the Trump administration has refused to cooperate with requests from GAO,” they wrote. “In light of this history of obstruction, our committees are on high alert.” The lawmakers asked for written confirmation by July 7 that the agencies will comply with GAO’s request.
The nonprofit anti-corruption group Coalition for Integrity released a report on Monday that analyzes the various entities conducting oversight of CARES Act funds and makes recommendations to address the gaps it identified. One suggestion is that the special pandemic IG should work with other IG offices “to ensure that all relevant employees covered by whistleblower protection laws are adequately informed and trained on the rights afforded to whistleblowers under various existing whistleblower protection statutes.” The pandemic IG “should also leverage the media to put appropriate pressure on agencies that refuse to comply with requests for information and that make it more difficult for [the pandemic IG] to audit and investigate fraud,” the report said.
As of Monday, the Pentagon has lifted travel restrictions in all states except Florida, Michigan and California, Military.com reported. Those states have recently experienced a surge in coronavirus cases.
This summer over 300 college students will be interning virtually at various federal agencies through The Washington Center program. “Initially there was a little bit of hesitation, but once we sort of decided how we could provide a unique opportunity to students, the agencies were very much on board in contributing to what that new dynamic looks like,” Shannan Spisak, director of federal initiatives at the Washington Center, told Federal News Network. Additionally, “with these internship opportunities, the hope is that students can receive a more direct path to employment opportunities as they are available at the agency.”
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about President Trump’s executive order on Friday to overhaul the federal hiring process. Amid responding to the pandemic, the administration is looking to modernize and diversify the federal workforce.
Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee, contractor or military member with information, concerns, etc. about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.