As federal agencies bring more employees back to their regular workplaces, “they will continue to face challenges in ensuring a safe environment and healthy workforces during the pandemic,” says a new report from an inspector general council.
“With the approval of the COVID-19 vaccines and the subsequent rollout to the public, it is anticipated that more federal offices will begin their reopening phases and expand the number of employees allowed in their buildings,” said the report from the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a group of IGs from the two dozen agencies most involved in pandemic response.
The report cited issues that several of the IGs have discovered where employees have continued working onsite through the pandemic even as large numbers have been teleworking exclusively or almost exclusively for nearly a year.
These included a report finding that the GSA did not consistently receive timely notice of COVID-19 incidents from building occupants, did not consistently provide timely notification of confirmed COVID-19 cases and did not have assurance that contractors were cleaning and disinfecting workspaces up to standards; that Postal Service employees did not fully comply with safety precautions and that managers did not always enforce them; and that a Labor Department return to work policy did not include an explicit protection from retaliation if employees disclose safety concerns.
“In addition, work completed by OIGs found differing guidance and implementation of policies related to facial coverings; personal protective equipment; social distancing; cleaning and disinfecting; contact tracing programs; and employee health screenings at federal agencies,” it said.
Best practices for in-person operations, it said, include: creating work “neighborhoods” within a facility to reduce exposure between work units; regular, clear communication from senior leaders about changes or updates to agency guidance and agency operational plans; critical information being made available to staff in a centralized manner; use of personal protective equipment; and conducting COVID-19 screening prior to entry to a site.
It added that the Biden administration has ordered a general limit on occupancy to 25 percent of maximum for the foreseeable future and tightened requirements for mask wearing, cleaning, distancing and other measures. “Federal agency compliance with the order and memo guidance will need to be assessed through future oversight work,” it said.