Fedweek

CBP officers stand their posts as they support security operations of the 59th Presidential Inauguration on Jan 19. The order tells agencies to take “immediate” actions “to require compliance with CDC guidelines with respect to wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and other public health measures by on-duty or on-site federal employees. (CBP Photo by Brian Sowards)

While much of the focus on President Biden’s executive order on pandemic safety in the federal workplace has focused on wearing of masks, the order also addresses other issues including availability of testing and inoculations.

The order tells agencies to take “immediate” actions “to require compliance with CDC guidelines with respect to wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and other public health measures by on-duty or on-site federal employees; on-site federal contractors; and all persons in federal buildings or on federal lands.”

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Such policies have been in common use for many months although specifics vary by agency and even by worksite. The order sets a central standard and further states that any exceptions an agency allows must be justified in writing and allowed only “to the extent that doing so is necessary or required by law.” Further, where exceptions are made, agencies “shall require appropriate alternative safeguards, such as additional physical distancing measures, additional testing, or reconfiguration of workspace.”

OPM and OMB are to issue guidance on carrying out those policies and are also to participate with several other agencies in a new “Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.” That group is to provide guidance to agencies on issues such as testing methods and protocols; contact tracing; occupancy and density standards; equipment needs and requirements, including personal protective equipment; air filtration; enhanced cleaning; vaccine prioritization, distribution, and administration; and more.

The order further addresses concerns that have been raised since the pandemic’s beginning nearly a year ago regarding availability of personal protective equipment and testing.

One provision tells agencies to “seek to provide masks to individuals in federal buildings when needed.” Also, the CDC is to produce a “testing plan for the federal workforce” that must “address the populations to be tested, testing types, frequency of testing, positive case protocols, and coordination with local public health authorities for contact tracing.”

The CDC and other agencies further are to “assess the availability of federal research grants to study best practices for implementing, and innovations to better implement, effective mask-wearing and physical distancing policies, with respect to both the federal workforce and the general public.”

The order however does not address some other commonly raised concerns, including about employees who don’t comply with masking and distancing policies—the order makes no specific mention of potential consequences—and the lack of notice to when someone in a workplace has contracted the virus or has tested positive.

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