More federal agencies have begun releasing policies on returning to normal operations—including expanded guidance from the largest, DoD—in the process causing uncertainty for many employees, especially those who now have daytime child care responsibilities.
Agencies continue to reopen some facilities to the public and to call back some employees who have been away from their regular workplaces for about two months, either teleworking or on some form of leave because their jobs do not allow for telework. The most extensive recall remains the one announced last week by the IRS, which is ordering back effective June 1 some 11,000 employees in three states who have been on paid leave because their jobs don’t allow for telework, following a voluntary recall of about the same number nationwide that yielded mixed results.
But the continued lifting of restrictions around the country has raised the likelihood that much larger numbers could soon be recalled to join the employees who have remained at their regular duty stations.
The new DoD guidance for example sets conditions for local commanders to change what the department calls “health protection condition” levels by taking into account, among other things, local conditions, CDC guidance, collaboration with regional officials and advice from local military medical facilities. Commanders have discretion to be more stringent based on their situations, but higher-level approval is needed to be less stringent.
At the “substantial” and “moderate” levels of overall risk, for example, facilities are to “continue to encourage telework whenever possible and feasible, especially for vulnerable populations.” At the “limited” level, though, telework practices are to “return to normal” although “vulnerable populations may need to continue to telework.”
The guidance however makes no mention of considerations for employees who now have daytime child care responsibilities due to the closings of day care centers or schools—as well as camps, now that many schools are on their normal summer break.
General government-wide policy discourages allowing telework by employees with family care responsibilities during working hours. Agencies have been flexible on that matter as unprecedented numbers of employees have been in telework status but whether that will continue is uncertain.
A reopening “playbook” from the Agriculture Department for example lays out considerations for three stages, beginning with one in which “telework should still be widely practiced” to one in which components “should lift maximum telework” to one in which it “may be permitted”—with exceptions in each case for employees at higher risk. In each case component agencies “may take an employee’s caregiving responsibilities into consideration when assessing telework status.”
Some employees with such responsibilities have said they are concerned that they would have to use up their annual leave and/or request unpaid leave until they could make other arrangements. That prospect has put new attention on a benefit under one of the virus relief laws of 80 hours of a special form of sick leave—paid, although at less than regular salary rates—for certain purposes, including for school and day care closings related to the virus.
Despite a series of instructions from OPM on that benefit—including telling agencies that they “must” pay it to employees who meet the qualifications and that employees may appeal denials to OPM through the same channels used for overtime disputes—many employees from continue to say that their agencies aren’t making that benefit available.
Also of concern for many employees looking to return to their regular worksites are considerations such as whether enough personal protective equipment will be available, and whether social distancing will be possible and whether facilities have been, and will continue to be, adequately cleaned.
The DoD and Agriculture policies do not directly address those issues from an employee’s viewpoint, but a question and answer document from NASA says that employees who “do not feel comfortable returning to work on-site or continuing to work on-site” should first talk to their direct supervisors and then if necessary to the local safety manager and then up to the headquarters-level safety office. “Every effort will be made to provide alternate work arrangements without reservation or reprisal,” it says.
OPM guidance says that agencies “are encouraged” to consider dependent care responsibilities and personal health concerns in determining if options other than requiring a return—such as allowing continued telework—“are appropriate.” However, it adds that agencies may take disciplinary actions against employees who do not comply with an order to return.