Federal agencies have been told to limit occupancy of their buildings through steps such as continued maximum telework while for those at the worksite they are to “immediately require correct and consistent use of masks and physical distancing.”
“As a general principle, every effort will be made to maximize the use of remote work during widespread community transmission. Unless it is physically impossible or poses a threat to critical national security interests, generally speaking, occupancy in federal workplaces should be no more than 25% of normal capacity during periods of significant or high community transmission,” under a model workplace safety program issued by the Biden administration.
Since early last year agencies have been allowing unprecedented numbers of employees to work remotely if their job allows for it, while hundreds of thousands of others have remained at the regular worksites. Policies on calling back employees in the former group and safety protections for those in the latter have varied, however, raising concerns among individual employees, their organizations and members of Congress.
The guidance, in OMB Memo 21-15, sets standards for agencies to follow in forming their own safety plans under a Biden executive order touching on a range of internal government policies related to the pandemic.
“Employees currently working remotely on a frequent or regular basis (e.g., if on an expanded remote work schedule, such as “maximum telework”) will be given advance notice and guidance before returning to the physical workplace. The agency’s human resources (HR) team will evaluate activities, on an ongoing basis, that may require on-site work,” it says.
It further specifies that on-site federal and contractor personnel must wear a mask that “covers the nose and mouth,” that fits snugly and that meets CDC quality standards. “Agencies should not allow novelty/non-protective masks, masks with ventilation valves, or face shields as a substitute for masks,” it says. They are to be worn “in any common areas or shared workspaces” in outdoor shared spaces “when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” it adds.
The guidance tells two dozen departments and major independent agencies to submit initial implementation plans to OMB by Friday (January 29); smaller agencies are to follow the guidance but need not report on their plans. OMB and a newly formed interagency Safer Federal Workforce Task Force will review and finalize those plans and will carry out upcoming guidance from the CDC on testing in the federal workplace, it says.
All agencies meanwhile are to form an internal “COVID-19 Coordination Team” to “collaborate with and support the contact tracing programs of local health departments to help identify, track, and manage contacts of COVID-19 cases,” among other duties. That is to include policies regarding another commonly expressed concern, lack of notice to employees when someone in the workplace has contracted the virus.
The guidance tells agencies to notify local health officials and to “be transparent in communicating related information to the workforce, as relevant and appropriate, consistent with local and federal privacy and confidentiality regulations and laws.”
It adds, “All medical information collected from personnel, including test results and any other information obtained as a result of testing and symptom monitoring, will be treated confidentially in accordance with applicable law, and accessible only by those with a need to know in order to protect the health and safety of personnel.”