Agencies have been keeping their options open on scheduling and other workplace policies as they set guidelines for recalling to regular worksites employees who have been on telework or leave status.
Those plans call for bringing back employees in a series of steps, based on local trends in cases, medical care capacity and other considerations, although when the policies of each successive level will be invoked is to be decided on a case by case basis, potentially down to the individual facility level.
To date, the recall of federal employees has been a relative trickle in comparison with the reopening of private sector businesses as virus-related restrictions are being eased in many places. The largest recall of employees remains the 11,000 IRS workers ordered to return to facilities in three states as of this week.
In general, the agency plans anticipate that in the earlier phases of returns, agencies will continue to allow higher than normal levels of telework and flexible working schedules, largely due to social distancing requirements. They do not guarantee such accommodations for employees, leaving that up to the discretion of management—which however is to consider factors such as an employee’s higher health risks or daytime child care responsibilities due to day care, school and camp closings.
OPM for example this week released its own reopening plan, specifically applying only there but likely to be closely watched because of OPM’s central role in federal personnel policies. In the first two of three phases, OPM will “continue to encourage telework” and will “strongly consider special accommodations for personnel who are members of a vulnerable population, who are caring for dependents who are members of a vulnerable population, and/or who have childcare or transportation needs.” But even at those earlier phases, management could “require individuals to return to OPM workspaces if it is necessary to perform essential duties and/or if work is better performed if executed in OPM workspaces.”
Like several other agencies, OPM also raised the prospect of having employees work in rotating shifts—in the regular workplace some days, teleworking others—to reduce the number of people present at any one time. But that also would apply only to the first two phases; in the third it is to “resume unrestricted staffing of worksites” while reviewing employee requests for telework or alternative scheduling on a case-by-case basis.
Separately, a new OPM memo to agencies stressed that workplace operational decisions ultimately are up to individual agencies, while adding that they “should be prepared to provide guidance to their employees on potential workplace flexibilities that may be available. Protecting our personnel and stakeholders from the effects of the COVID-19, while preserving the agency’s ability to complete its mission, is the foundation of any agency plan.” Those instructions came in a message encouraging agencies in the Washington, D.C. area to use alternative work schedules and telework to accommodate employees affected by a rail transit repair project that is to keep many stations closed for months.
Agencies have been issuing their recall planning documents even amid continued concerns about health risks to those who have remained at their regular worksites, especially those requiring close interactions with other people such as jobs at prisons, hospitals, airports and food processing facilities. Similar concerns have started arising among employees who have returned to some facilities that have reopened, such as certain national parks, where employees also come into frequent contact with the public.
Such concerns further caused the AFGE union to object to the EPA’s announcement that employees in three of its regions could be called back soon. The union said that the experience of the last few months has proven that “the vast majority of the agency can continue teleworking effectively. Thus we see no justification to order EPA employees back into offices while the risks of COVID-19 remain.”
AFGE and other unions continue to complain that agencies are not engaging in the required bargaining or consultation over employee safety and other issues related to employees returning to their regular duty stations.