A National Park Service worker picks up trash along the drained Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool as the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol are seen in the distance in Washington, at sunrise.

A National Park Service worker picks up trash along the drained Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool as the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol are seen in the distance in Washington, at sunrise. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Biden Task Force Says Unmasked Feds Should Face Discipline, Calls for Bonus Leave

A task force on federal employee safety during the COVID-19 pandemic has issued its first set of guidelines.

A task force created by President Biden to create a safer workspace for federal employees during the COVID-19 pandemic has issued its first set of guidelines, telling agencies to punish those who refuse to wear masks and provide leave for employees to get vaccinated. 

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force submitted answers to frequently asked questions this week, seeking to spell out details for agencies that must implement a Biden executive order and White House memorandum on the topic. As agencies seek to ramp up employee vaccination efforts and returns to offices, the Biden administration has established processes to ensure a consistent approach across government. It has called for mandatory mask usage on all federal property, and a cap on employees inside offices and modified spaces to maximize safety. The Office of Personnel Management director, General Services Administration administrator, and COVID-19 response coordinator and heads of several other agencies are leading the task force. 

The task force told agencies to pursue discipline for employees who refuse to comply with Biden’s mask mandate. They should consider banning those employees from the workplace until the disciplinary action is resolved and place the worker on paid administrative leave until the punishment is issued. Agencies should also consider “reasonable accommodations”—such as a special physical distancing setup—for staffers who have religious or medical reasons not to wear masks. In cases in which a visitor refuses to comply with the mask requirement, employees should contact security—or if none is available on site, bring in outside law enforcement—to remove the individual.

As spelled out in Biden’s executive order, the task force instructed agencies to consult with employee unions to provide them an opportunity to weigh in on their plans to come into compliance with safe workplace practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also told agencies to negotiate with the unions as appropriate “at the earliest opportunity.” Agencies can authorize official time for union officials to conduct representational activities related to those consultations and negotiations while on the clock, the task force said. While labor groups have praised communications with management in some cases, they have criticized other agencies for moving ahead unilaterally with pandemic-related plans.

Answering the call from lawmakers and unions, the task force said agencies should grant administrative leave to employees getting vaccinated. Some agencies have already authorized the paid time off. Food Safety Inspection Service workers can take four hours of administrative leave to get a dose, an Agriculture Department spokesman said, with managers authorized to provide more time if necessary. The task force similarly recommended four hours of time off per dose “to facilitate expeditious vaccination of the federal workforce.” The guidance, which was first reported by Federal News Network, did not mention any COVID-19 testing plan for the federal workforce, a step Biden called for in his executive order. 

Most agencies have struggled to secure vaccine doses for their workforces, with only five receiving direct distributions for internal use. Management in many cases has communicated to frontline employees that they are eligible for prioritized access, but has done little to assist in actually getting them inoculated. The Homeland Security Department has partnered with the Veterans Affairs Department to get its workforce vaccinated, but the initiative has been slow to get off the ground. 

In some circumstances, agencies have allowed employees to take “safety leave” if they are at risk of severe illness from contracting COVID-19 or after known exposures to the virus. Others, such as the VA and USDA, have faced criticism for asking employees to continue working even after being exposed to the coronavirus. The Internal Revenue Service just rescinded its policy that has allowed some employees unable to telework to take safety leave since last spring. The task force emphasized that safety leave should remain available to employees “in circumstances where allowing an employee to travel to or perform work at the normal worksite would pose significant safety risks for the employee, other employees, or the general public.” 

The group also told agencies to provide the leave to employees forced to quarantine after returning from work-related travel. Those who similarly must isolate due to personal travel should be forced to stay away from their office with the agency determining the status upon which they should be placed. 

GSA previously released office reopening guidelines in consultation with a private sector company it contracted to provide insights on workplace safety. The Biden administration supplemented that with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, which included a requirement that federal offices cannot currently exceed 25% capacity. The task force said it and agency leadership must sign off on any attempt to exceed that cap. Employees must take a self-screening assessment before reporting to their offices each day and facilities have the option to adopt an on-site screening process. 

GSA, which is coordinating the task force’s efforts, did not respond to questions about when the group will meet again or release further guidance.