Now more than a month after agencies submitted workplace “reentry” plans to OMB for approval, there still have been no public releases of those plans, which at least in some cases had anticipated changing policies on telework, alternative work schedules and other workplace matters as soon as next month.
There have been widespread reports—which some agencies have confirmed—that the plans submitted to OMB called for beginning an increase in the number of employees physically at workplaces over September-October, with further increases phased in over several months and reaching a stable state around the turn of the year or early in 2022.
Affected employees, many of whom still are teleworking full-time or most of the time, would be joining colleagues who have been onsite all along due to the nature of their jobs. In at least some of those plans, managers apparently would make up most or all of the first wave, in part to make needed arrangements for a broader return.
Meanwhile, the House may vote this week on a bill (HR-978) requiring agencies to first produce and publicly post workplace safety plans covering topics such as the personal protective equipment available to employees, COVID-19 testing procedures, cleaning protocols and other actions to protect employees. The House had planned to vote on that bill several weeks ago but a procedural dispute held it up.
While Biden administration policies issued since the bill was first offered already cover some of those areas, House passage would send a go-slow signal. The NTEU union recently called on the administration to indefinitely delay any reentry plans, saying that maximum telework has been the government’s most effective safety protocol during the pandemic.
The order to draft the reentry plans was issued at a time of declining Coronavirus infections, a trend that since has been sharply reversed. That brings new practical issues as well as the questionable optics of potentially exposing employees who have been working safely from home—especially given that a number of prominent private sector companies already have delayed their return to the office plans for just that reason.
Another complicating factor has come from several sets of policies the administration issued after ordering the reentry plans, including a general policy that employees who do not attest that they are fully vaccinated would be subject to testing at least weekly and stricter physical distancing requirements.
Also still not well defined is the extent unions of the promised bargaining or consultation with unions over the implementation of the reentry plans. After those obligations are met, the administration further has promised to give employees what it calls ample notice—typically at least 30 days—before changing their work arrangements.