Fedweek

Washington - May 2020: US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, rides the Senate subway wearing a face mask, with the Senate back in session and the House continuing with virtual meetings while in recess.

Although Congress has not fully returned to session from a recess that started in mid-March, members are growing increasingly vocal about safety and other issues for federal employees in the pandemic, in terms similar to those used by federal employee unions.

The Senate is now back in session and while the House remains on recess, its activity also is increasing with virtual meetings, bill introductions and oversight activities. That includes a string of letters to OPM, OMB, the White House and elsewhere regarding workforce issues. For example, a bipartisan group of 19 senators this week said that lack of personal protective equipment “remains a significant concern for frontline and essential workers across the country, including federal employees and contractors, who have not had access to the PPE as well as cleaning and disinfecting supplies they need to do their job safely.”

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They also urged the administration to more aggressively use flexibilities including telework, hazardous duty pay, and weather and safety leave for those who can neither telework nor work at their official duty stations due to personal vulnerability.

There has been no central accounting of how widely agencies are using those authorities—or another that the letter didn’t mention, an additional sick leave entitlement for some purposes—but it appears to be inconsistent.

Several House Democrats active in workplace issues meanwhile said the administration’s guidance on bringing federal offices back to normal operations does not address how the agencies will gather the necessary personal protective equipment or conduct the number of tests that would be needed. Further, they said in a letter to OPM, the guidance “lacks clarity and will lead to conflicts between agency decisions and state level infection mitigation measures” and does not address what will happen “when employees fall ill, or quarantine or distancing measures need to be reinstated.”

And a letter from a similar set of Senate Democrats said that they “remain concerned” about lack of protective equipment and that agencies “have reported varying policies and procedures and availability of PPE to frontline workers.” Also, they said that OPM guidance has left employees “without clear information about their access to paid leave and telework” and has resulted in “uneven availability of weather and safety leave across agencies for those employees unable to telework.”

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