In a report that is sure to add fuel to the controversy over returning more federal employees to the office, an audit has found that GSA “did not always take appropriate action to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in its owned and leased facilities.”
Those in the buildings “may have unknowingly passed through space contaminated by individuals infected with COVID-19, and been at increased risk of exposure to and transmission of the disease,” an inspector general report said.
The report raises many of the same safety-related issues that are at the heart of considerations regarding “reentry” of employees from telework, especially given the surge in infections nationwide since the administration issued guidance on drafting those plans. Many of those plans called for increasing the number of onsite employees on a phased-in basis starting as early as this month—although the status of those plans, which were submitted for OMB review in mid-July, is largely uncertain.
The report addresses several issues that employees who have been working onsite have raised throughout the pandemic: the information they receive, or don’t, when a co-worker has a confirmed case of covid-19; and the level of cleaning done in response.
The Public Buildings Service—the building management arm of GSA—“did not always receive or provide timely notice of positive COVID-19 incidents in accordance with PBS’s notification process. As a result, PBS could not take appropriate action to clean and disinfect affected space,” it said.
“In addition, PBS did not always provide contractors with the correct scope of work to conduct detailed cleaning and disinfection services. Also, PBS did not implement consistent inspection and quality assurance procedures for COVID-19 custodial services. For these reasons, PBS does not have assurance that contractors cleaned and disinfected space in accordance with CDC and PBS guidance,” it said.
It said that while GSA policy requires a tenant agency to notify the GSA immediately after it has been confirmed that someone who had worked there is infected, in five of 33 incidents auditors examined, there were delays of up to five days. Similarly, while policy calls for notifying all employees in the facility within 24 hours after notice to GSA, that was not done in six of the cases.
In four of those, the PBS “did not provide any notice to building occupants. PBS stated that notice was not provided in one of these incidents because there was only one other tenant in the building and their staff was teleworking at the time of the incident. In another incident, PBS decided too much time had passed since the affected individual was in the tenant space for any notice to be effective. In the other two incidents, PBS relied on tenants to notify building occupants,” the IG said.
In the other two, PBS provided notice three to four days later—in one case “because the point of contact was on leave and the acting point of contact failed to issue timely notice.”
An earlier report by the IG at the GSA had raised many of the same issues, as did reports by the IGs at OPM and the SBA.
The report said that GSA agreed with recommendations including that it “issue timely notification of all COVID-19 incidents in GSA-controlled facilities to all occupant agencies, contractors, and visitors”; “take steps to maximize awareness of COVID-19 incidents in GSA-controlled facilities”; “ensure that tenant agencies are aware of the requirement to immediately notify PBS of COVID-19 incidents”; and ensure that higher-level cleaning occurs after an incident and that the results are inspected.