The recalling, or not, of federal employees to their regular worksites is increasingly getting caught up in a highly politicized debate over lifting – or not lifting – pandemic-related restrictions in general.
There is no central count of how many federal employees have returned from telework status – or the much smaller number on paid leave, for those kept away from their worksites but whose jobs do not allow for telework.
For now, a large portion of the returnees are in the political appointee or senior career employee ranks, but agencies increasingly are being challenged from the right to accelerate the pace and from the left to do the opposite – especially given the resurgence of infections in some areas that have caused some states to reimpose restrictions they already had lifted.
For example, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked the Labor Department to put the brakes on plans to recall employees, saying that “Many of the communities where DOL regional and district offices are located continue to see high rates of COVID-19 infection and hospitalization, making their return to their workplaces even more potentially dangerous. Yet, DOL has not created a clear and uniform plan for the safe return of employees to their workplaces, creating potential confusion and inadequate protection for DOL employees.”
She previously had raised similar concerns regarding the EPA, which now is engaged in a war of words with the AFGE union over planned recalls of employees in Washington state and elsewhere.
An AFGE representative further told a House hearing last week that “One of the worst tragedies associated with this pandemic is that now that we have sufficient knowledge of what is necessary to stop the spread of the disease, it is likely that the federal government will move forward with reopening too soon. As a consequence, instead of stopping the spread of COVID-19, the government itself will contribute to the continuation and possible worsening of the pandemic.”
Other federal unions have expressed similar concerns, especially regarding other states or local areas where infection rates have been increasing. And they say that the large number of employees who have remained at their regular workplaces due to the frontline nature of the work continue to face risks that agencies still could do more to reduce.
A GAO witness said that agency is monitoring individual agency plans and recall actions. He said that “to protect employees as they reenter the workforce, it will be important for agencies to have appropriate protection measures in place” such as providing personal protective equipment, availability of hygiene supplies, changes to the work environment to reduce workplace hazards and social distancing strategies—all areas of concern to unions and some members of Congress.
Meanwhile, several Republican members of the House government operations subcommittee said that the federal government is lagging rather than setting a model at a time that many private sector companies now back to normal operations, or close to them. Several complained about degraded agency services including delayed processing of tax refunds (the IRS actually has been one of the most aggressive in terms of calling back employees below the senior levels).
Meanwhile, the chairman of that panel, Rep. Gerald Connolly, has introduced HR-7340, to require agencies to publicly post workplace plans describing the protective equipment and other protections they will provide for employees as well as steps they will take “to reverse reopening measures if there is a resurgence” of infections in a local area.
He also offered HR-7341, to create a $13 an hour “pandemic duty differential” and to provide childcare reimbursements to federal employees working on the front lines. Similar provisions were included in a pandemic relief bill that has passed the House but stalled in the Senate.