Some agencies have begun moves to return to normal operations under Trump administration guidance even as concerns remain regarding safety risks at regular worksites—risks that would be compounded, employee organization say, by a premature return of employees who have been working from home.
One of the agencies that was among the last to fully close to the public, the IRS, this week made one of the first moves toward reopening.
It called on an unspecified number, reportedly about 10,000, of employees in “mission-critical” functions, to return on a volunteer basis with incentives—at least at first.
It further required returnees to wear face coverings except when alone in enclosed spaces, although it said it could not supply them; employees were told to bring their own. “Materials used to create the covering must be conducive to a professional work environment and not contain any images or text that may be deemed inappropriate or offensive to others,” it added.
Other agencies moving in that direction include the SSA, which said to watch for announcements of local office re-openings, and the Interior Department, which said it is working to reopen national parks—some of which have closed, at least partially—“as rapidly as possible.”
The moves come as agencies continue to report growing numbers of infected employees and deaths. Three with high percentages of public-facing employees who have continued to work as usual, VA, USPS and TSA, recently reported some 1,900, 1,200 and 500 infections, respectively, with 20, 44 and four deaths; the IRS has reported about 100 and four. Many thousands more workers across government are believed to be in quarantine after suspected exposure.
Federal employee unions meanwhile continue to raise safety concerns about sites where some employees are continuing to work and to which the others would return. Those include employees being required to report to sites even though they could telework, shortages of personal protective equipment, employees feeling pressured to remain at the workplace despite feeling sick, and workplaces that don’t allow for CDC-recommended social distancing.
Unions have cautioned of the risks of prematurely returning to regular operations, saying that employees should not be recalled until numerous improvements are made, including in capacity for testing and availability of protective equipment and supplies such as hand sanitizer.
Unions also called for continuation of telework for employees in high-risk groups and those with child care responsibilities, and for work scheduling and other protocols that allow for social distancing at regular worksites.
Also, senior Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the IRS, said the agency “is expecting entirely too much of employees who are likely distraught over the health risks returning to work presents for themselves and for their families, as well as the potential repercussions they could face” if they do not go back.
While some states are easing or lifting stay-at-home orders, full restrictions will remain in effect at least for weeks more in others. Leaders of three—Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia—with large concentrations of federal employees have urged the administration to make agency policies “reflective of our own local operating statuses” to avoid a potential resurgence of infections.
A question and answer document from OPM on the general return-to-normal policy says that since federal agency decisions are to be coordinated with local and state authorities, conflicts over returning employees who have been away from their regular worksites should be “infrequent.”
However, it also makes clear that the decision ultimately rests with the federal agency involved, noting recent guidance saying that state stay-at-home orders do not prevent federal agencies from requiring that their employees work at their regular site.
That guidance also states that once an agency has made such a decision, “employees can be expected to report to their office unless in an approved leave status.” It adds that “some employees may have reservations about returning to their workplace” and tells agencies to work with employees and unions to “address such concerns.”
“When considering any administrative action based on non-compliance with a reporting requirement”—that is, discipline—agencies are “encouraged to consider” circumstances such as whether the employee or a person in the home is in a high-risk category, and child care or other dependent care needs resulting from daycare or school closures.
“Agencies should determine if other options are appropriate, such as allowing employees to continue to telework or asking them to request personal leave (e.g., annual leave, sick leave if applicable, or leave without pay),” it says.