Congress is stepping up the scrutiny of agency policies and practices regarding returning employees to their workplaces from telework or weather and safety leave, which has continued even as Coronavirus infections are hitting record levels in many parts of the country.
Among the questions are whether, given rising infections, local conditions still meet the standards that such policies set for allowing the return of employees from telework—or from the less commonly used weather and safety leave.
Also in question is how many employees have been recalled and where, given the incomplete accounting government-wide and even on an agency-by-agency basis. The safety of employees who have remained at their official duty stations is another factor.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, has called on Cabinet departments and major independent agencies to describe their recall plans in detail, including issues such as “which employees will be asked to return to their duty stations and when; whether leave and telework flexibilities will still be available to employees, for how long, and to what extent; any regionalized or localized plans to account for areas that continue to see an increase in COVID-19 cases; and any estimates or timelines of when the agency will return all employees to normal duty stations.”
Several agency IGs—including the one at OPM—have publicly said they will conduct a review at their agencies, following a request from Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., chair of the House government operations subcommittee, made to the IGs of those same departments and agencies. GAO earlier had said it was looking into the same matter.
Also, the House has started requiring greater reporting by inserting language into the spending bills it is advancing for fiscal 2021, which starts in October. For example, the general government bill – which also funds the IRS, among several other agencies – orders an IG report on the agency’s “policies and guidance to protect the health and safety of all IRS employees and how these compare to the Centers for Disease Control and [OPM] guidance, all safety and health incidents, and the employee telework and return-to-work notification process.”
Similarly, a bill covering the Agriculture Department requires that the Food Safety and Inspection Service publish data available to the public on cases among its employees and criticizes the agency for relocating inspectors “from closed establishments that had had COVID–19 outbreaks to other establishments, potentially increasing the spread of the disease and placing other people at risk.”
The transfer of employees also has become a controversy at CBP, with leading Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee objecting to the agency’s plan to transfer more than 800 officers to several border areas where infection rates are high. “It is irresponsible to send additional federal employees from across the country into a such an environment,” they said.