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USDA's Office Reopening Plans Are Causing 'Uncertainty and Fear,' Employees Say

Lawmakers and workers want USDA to pause any efforts to bring employees back to offices.

The Agriculture Department’s plan to return employees to their offices has sparked concern among workers and lawmakers that the Trump administration is not taking proper precautions to protect staff during the pandemic. 

USDA does not plan to make COVID-19 tests available for employees, screen with temperature checks or notify staff when a colleague tests positive for the disease, according to employees and lawmakers. Lawmakers in the Washington region said in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue this week that the department’s plan was “rushed and flawed” and called on the department to pause it. 

Agriculture has said it would put information about positive cases of the novel coronavirus on its intranet site rather than notifying employees directly. It will conduct contact tracing, but the House Democrats said in their letter it was insufficient and deviated from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols. USDA has not provided guidance on how it will adjust potentially problematic issues such as building access and elevator use, cubicle spacing or otherwise enforce physical distancing. 

“As an across-the-board position, the agency has indicated they’re not willing to provide both flexibility employees need and deserve as well as the clear logistical measures necessary to ensure a safe office,” said Daniel Cline, who leads the National Treasury Employees Union chapter that represents USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services workers in Alexandria, Virginia. Cline added USDA has not been forthcoming about when it will move from phase two—the current stage in which a select number of employees have returned to the office—to phase three, when virtually all workers would return.

As part of its reopening plan, Agriculture said it would space out its phases by at least two weeks. It has remained in phase two for more than two months, which Cline said has exacerbated the “uncertainty and fear” employees have about going back to their duty stations. Employees are eager to know the reopening plan is either paused indefinitely or that certain demands for procedures would be met. 

Among the employees' concerns are the limited exceptions provided for in the third phase of USDA’s reopening plan. The House Democrats, led by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., said in their letter anyone over the age of 65 should be permitted to remain on telework status. Those who rely on mass transit or live with individuals at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should also be provided flexibility, they said. 

“The federal government has a responsibility as a model employer to show American businesses how to safely reopen in the face of the ongoing pandemic,” the lawmakers wrote. “The agency's plans thus far do not live up to that responsibility.”

USDA leadership has agreed to meet with Cline to negotiate over the conditions upon which employees would be brought back to work, and the union representative said he is “optimistic” the department will “reconsider some of its initial positions.” Still, he said, USDA has not indicated it will space out employees or notify them of a COVID-19 outbreak. Cline suggested it was illogical that USDA would send out emergency notifications if there were a water main break in the office or a severe storm coming, but would not do so if someone tested positive for the virus. 

“We have folks who are very scared about what it will mean to come back into the office,” said Cline, an analyst at FNS. “We don’t have a ton of confidence that these decisions are being made by individuals who have public health training and experience.”

He added that USDA leadership has not said why employees need to go back to the office, as they have repeatedly praised the workforce for its accomplishments while in remote status. Agriculture previously faced criticism for its failures to protect Food Safety Inspection Service employees from outbreaks at meat processing plants. 

Initial concerns that the Trump administration would rush federal employees back to their offices to prove the country was getting back to normal have proven largely unfounded. Lawmakers have accused the administration of unsafely requiring employees to end telework, but a large number of those who were sent to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic still remain there. Still, several agencies across government have begun slowly bringing employees back to their offices, and the Defense Department has allowed up to 80% of employees who report to the Pentagon to return.The Environmental Protection Agency has aggressively recalled workers, leading to challenges by the American Federation of Government Employees and an  ongoing investigation by the EPA inspector general. The Government Accountability Office has faulted the Trump administration for failing to deliver a comprehensive plan for bringing workers back to offices. 

The House Democrats called on USDA to delay its recall of employees until it develops a “safe and science-based reopening plan” that would give certainty to workers and more carefully “consider all logistical aspects.”