The House’s passage on Saturday of a Postal Service bill likely will be the last action by Congress on pandemic-related issues for several weeks, even as federal workplace concerns related to the pandemic continue to build.
In a rare action, the House returned briefly from its August recess to pass HR-8015, to prohibit the Postal Service from making changes to operations or levels of service from those that were in effect as of the start of this year until the Coronavirus pandemic is declared to be over. The bill further would require the postal agency to reverse any changes already made that have the effect of delaying processing of the mail, and would give the USPS $25 billion in operating money.
The measure passed largely along party lines as USPS has become the center of a partisan debate over cost-saving steps, and their potential impact on voting by mail, taken by recently installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. In response, DeJoy has promised that mail ballots will get top priority and has suspended some of those actions—which allowed for, and resulted in, delays in deliveries—through the elections.
However, he has said he will leave in place some other actions already taken—such as shutting down some processing equipment—arguing that they had been long-scheduled. USPS meanwhile is reported to be considering changes for after the elections including lowering some delivery standards and charging higher prices in some cases.
The White House threatened to veto the bill, saying among other things that the USPS does not need the additional funding and that the bill bars needed changes, and the Senate Republican leadership has said it will not call a vote on it. That decision also effectively means that Congress will not be in a position to consider any relief measures until after a scheduled return to voting on September 14.
Still set aside at least until then is a wide-ranging bill previously passed by the House that among other things would mandate that federal agencies remain in maximum telework status until certain standards are met; provide hazardous duty pay for frontline federal employees among other workers; and change a number of benefits provisions to address personnel policy issues arising for some employees.
Also set aside was a possible budget supplement for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which announced Tuesday that even without the extra $1.2 billion it requested, it will once again put off its previously announced plan to put on indefinite unpaid furloughs some 13,400 employees, nearly three-fourths of its workforce. The furloughs, originally set to begin August 3, previously had been deferred until the 31st.
The largely self-funding agency said that a combination of higher income from the fees it charges plus restrictions on contract spending and other activities freed up enough money to defer the furloughs through September. That effectively gives Congress another chance to address the issue after its return.
The issue of telework vs. returning to the regular workplace for non-frontline employees has been a point of dispute between employees and agencies for months but has taken on new urgency of late. Unions report that more agencies, even though not ordering a general recall, have been asking or ordering employees to return to the regular office in small numbers and/or sporadically; for example, the SSA has done that with an unknown number of employees on grounds that personal presence is needed for appointments with members of the public, the AFGE union has said.
Those steps meanwhile come as the mid-summer spike in infections and deaths is easing in some localities—in some cases after previously lifted restrictions were reimposed—potentially meeting standards for reopening offices linked to local health conditions. At the same time, though, more schools have announced that they will have instruction partly or fully online, extending daytime family responsibilities for many employees with children.
The AFGE released results of a poll of its members in which nearly four-fifths of employees who have been teleworking said they would feel unsafe returning to their regular workplace, while nearly three-fourths of those still on-site said their agencies are not sufficiently protecting them. A third of the 2,200 respondents overall further said they are having trouble providing for child care coverage.
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The impending death of the U.S. Postal Service has been proclaimed so many times in the last decade that it is difficult to know whether to call the medics or the gravedigger this time around.