Fedweek

Miami, Feb 2021: US Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists inspect imported cut flowers at the Port of Miami where more than 90% of cut flowers enter the US. (CBP photo by Jerry Glaser)

New guidance regarding Coronavirus-related safety practices in the federal workplace raises the prospect that employees who do not comply could be subject to disciplinary actions, specifically mentioning suspension for refusal to follow mask-wearing requirements.

The guidance, issued by an interagency committee created under President Biden’s executive order, addresses an issue of concern to many federal employees: lack of compliance with on-site safety policies, in particular requirements for protective masks, that have been in effect for nearly a year.

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The Biden order sets standards not only for settings in which masks should be worn but also requires that masks comply with CDC requirements, for example banning “novelty” masks that do not provide that level of protection.

“When a supervisor observes an employee at the workplace not wearing a mask, the supervisor should remind the employee of the federal government-wide policy requiring mask-wearing in federal buildings,” it says, adding that if the employee raises a “disability or religious issue,” the supervisor is to “consider what, if any, reasonable accommodation should be offered.”

“If the employee is not eligible for an accommodation and does not comply with the mask requirement, the agency may pursue discipline. An agency may elect to bar the employee from the workplace for the safety of others until it determines the appropriate disciplinary action and any related proceedings are concluded,” it adds.

“If the agency bars the employee from the workplace, the employee must be placed on paid administrative leave until the agency takes the disciplinary action. The agency must also follow normal processes to provide the required notice to the employee before implementing the disciplinary action. This could include, for example, possible placement of the employee on notice leave during the required period before effecting a suspension,” it says.

Concerns about lack of compliance and lack of enforcement have been raised by employees who have remained onsite and by employees who have been teleworking and who are anticipating a possible return to their regular workplaces.

A recent survey of Justice Department law enforcement officers for example found that only about 60 percent said they always or often wear a mask while on duty and even lower percentages said that was true of other law enforcement officials with whom they work. Also, a recent inspector general report said that Postal Service employees did not fully comply with safety precautions and that managers did not always enforce them.

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2021 Federal Employees Handbook