The pandemic worsened challenges that Defense Department depots “already faced, such as not having enough personnel to perform maintenance” on military equipment, GAO has said in the latest assessment of the impact on federal operations.
Auditors looked at eight depots operated by the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force which together employ about 40,000 civilian federal workers and found that all eight reported they already had personnel challenges including not having sufficient personnel with the needed skills. All also reported issues with parts and labor but only some reported other challenges such as inadequate facilities or receiving unexpected new requirements or having to redo work that already was done.
Officials told GAO that especially at the onset of the pandemic they put many employees with certain medical conditions or who otherwise were at high risk on weather and safety leave, causing them to either temporarily shut down or substantially reduce some operations. In addition, some employees had to be kept away from work due to state-imposed quarantine and other requirements, and “the closure of schools, daycares, and other businesses that affected the communities where the depots are located, also contributed to personnel taking more leave than planned or being absent.”
GAO estimated that employees of the depot took an average of 80 hours of leave—two weeks’ worth—for reasons directly related to the pandemic.
“Depots supported the workforce by considering local conditions, adjusting operating schedules, and using remote work. However, depots did not consistently address key practices for continuing operations. Depot officials said that adapting existing contingency plans for natural disasters to COVID-19 added to confusion among mission-essential personnel early in the pandemic,” the report said.
For example, it said, employees “did not initially understand the distinction between emergency-essential personnel expected to respond during natural disasters, and mission-essential personnel expected to continue to work during a public health emergency, such as COVID-19,” causing some to believe they were to stay away from work even though they were expected to report.
The depots “did not consistently share information or record lessons learned during COVID-19 to inform future crisis response,” it added.