Fedweek

US Customs and Border Protection police watch as demonstrators march past the Department of Commerce in Washington DC on June 6th, protesting the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police. Public health officials have warned that crowding and violence around protests over police accountability may be fueling a rise in new Covid-19 cases in some areas. 

Recalls of federal employees to their regular worksites continue to grow but so do safety cautions from unions and some members of Congress, especially in light of some localized increases in Coronavirus cases as restrictions have been eased.

The head of the House subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce has asked the IGs of Cabinet departments and the largest independent agencies for an expedited review of whether agencies “are employing best practices and existing guidance when deciding whether or when to require federal employees and contractors to return to federal office buildings.”

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“The health and safety of federal employees is of paramount concern. We need to ensure that administration officials are cautious and prudent when requiring federal employees and contractors to return to federal office buildings,” Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said.

“We need to ensure that premature or misguided efforts to return to offices will not undercut efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and put federal employees and their families in danger,” he said in asking for an assessment of issues such as the availability of testing, personal protective equipment, sanitizer, workplace dividers, protocols for when an employee tests positive, and more.

Such concerns also are arising on a localized basis, for example with two Democratic members of Congress from Washington state asking the EPA to reconsider plans to the region based there.

The state “has continued to see high rates of infection throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, making ensuring the health and safety of workers transitioning back to in-person duties of the utmost importance,” their letter said. “Additionally, the federal government must act as a model employer and has a responsibility to uphold the rights and protections of the individuals it employs.”

The AFGE union has called for a moratorium on callbacks at the EPA, which has announced plans for returning employees from telework or leave at several other regions as well—although several of those apparently have been put on hold temporarily.

Other agencies that most recently have announced, or started, returns of employees at some facilities include State, FEMA and OPM, as well as DoD, for the Pentagon and its associated buildings. However, as a percentage of employees who have been off-site since March the number recalled has been relatively small. While here is no central count of recalls, the IRS apparently has brought back the most, more than 20,000 who largely were on paid leave status because their jobs didn’t allow for teleworking.

AFGE meanwhile told a House hearing this week that the government risks further spreading the virus “by rushing to reopen federal worksites without ensuring safety protocols are in place to protect workers and the public . . . in states that reopened too early such as Texas and Florida, the data are showing a resurgence of the pandemic. We are not seeing, however, a reversion to ‘stay at home’ directives that are supposed to precede any reopening.”

The NTEU union raised similar concerns at the hearing, calling for steps including increased testing of employees, contact tracing, cleaning, protective barriers and personal protective equipment.

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