While federal agencies have broadened telework and are making more protective equipment available to employees, safety concerns related to the Coronavirus are continuing, and have led to a lawsuit, labor-management disputes and the prospect of further action by Congress.
A number of agencies now say they have achieved “maximum” telework status, or close to it, with only a minimum number in jobs that allow for remote work required to continue coming to the regular workplace.
For example, while the SSA had closed offices to the public weeks ago, until this week it had required its administrative law judges to continue holding hearings on benefits claims in person; they now are remote.
Also for example the IRS, which had previously closed offices to the public, this week invoked evacuation authority to send more employees home; and the VA—which previously closed regional offices—this week stopped in-person benefit briefings and services on military installations for transitioning service members.
However, employee organizations argue telework could still be expanded in some agencies and that personnel that continue going into a workplace, including those into otherwise closed offices, remain at unneeded risk.
The Professional Managers Association warned that IRS facilities “largely lack appropriate cleaning supplies due to global shortages and IRS employees are still barred from utilizing their own cleaning supplies.”
The NTEU union meanwhile repeated its call to close all federal offices of 50 people or more and to require agencies to provide testing for all employees if ordered by a medical professional.
For employees not eligible to telework there continue to be concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment such as masks meeting CDC guidelines. The AFGE union credited the TSA for now making CDC-compliant masks available to airport screeners who want them, but added that “unfortunately, the lack of proper PPE for front-line employees is a widespread issue across the federal government.”
The union has filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to require agencies to start paying hazardous duty pay to employees in workplaces where there is a higher than normal risk of exposure, retroactive to January 27. AFGE and other unions meanwhile have said that agencies have been refusing to bargain—or, in some cases, even consult—with them on issues of protective equipment, leave policies, assignments, and more.
The Coronavirus relief law enacted last week includes funds for dozens of agencies to purchase protective equipment, although it is unclear hold long it will be before front-line employees see the impact.
There is no official count of the number of federal employees who have been confirmed as having contracted Coronavirus but the VA recently reported 185, and the USPS 65, while the TSA has reported 75 just in the last two weeks, most of them screeners.
Meanwhile, House Democrats have started work on another relief bill—what would be the fourth—which could include another attempt to enact policies listed in an earlier bill that was set aside in the push to enact last week’s bill: ($2T Stimulus Now Law: Funds Agency Telework, Cleaning, Overtime Costs)
Those provisions included mandatory telework for all employees eligible for it; mandated weather and safety leave for employees prevented from going to their regular work locations but who cannot telework; mandated hazardous duty pay for employees exposed in the line of duty; payments of up to $2,000 a month to employees who are required to work and incur expenses related to the care of a child or relative who has COVID-19; and a presumption that any employee carrying out duties that require substantial contact with the public and who contracts the virus would be eligible for FECA benefits.
However, Congress could not even begin to consider such a bill until it returns from its current recess in three weeks.
ask.FEDweek.com: Hazardous Duty Pay