While agencies have increasingly moved employees to telework status—including several declaring themselves as in 100 percent telework status for weeks at least—federal employee unions and members of Congress of both parties continue to say that more is needed to protect employees from the Coronavirus.
Now weeks the virus was declared a pandemic and the CDC urged social distancing to slow its spread, many employees say they still are being required to come to work even though they are eligible for telework, or would be if their agencies were more open to it. That’s true even in some offices now closed to the public.
“When it comes to telework, the federal government should lead by example. Instead, we’re hearing from employees across the federal government who have been forced to come into the office even when they’re able to work from home. The inconsistent federal response is senseless, and ultimately, in the face of the coronavirus, it endangers the health and safety of thousands,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
He and others have offered a new Senate bill (S-3651) to require that agencies allow those eligible to telework full-time unless there is a clear and compelling reason not to do so, and to require agencies to review whether employees currently not deemed eligible could be made eligible. An earlier-introduced House bill (HR-6108) would set goals for agencies to increase telework of different levels of frequency and require them to report to Congress and justify any new restrictions on telework.
A House Democratic-sponsored Coronavirus supplemental bill incorporates principles of both those measures, although a counterpart bill in the Senate does not.
The administration meanwhile has issued several memos urging agencies to increase telework, the most definitive being an OMB memo telling them to “maximize” it, “including mandatory telework, if necessary” as part of a shift in attention to their most mission-critical activities. Follow-up guidance from OPM added that in certain situations agencies may direct employees to perform telework “even if they have not been a telework program participant or previously designated as telework-eligible.”
There is no official count of how many federal employees are in telework status, but under even “maximum” telework, more than half are currently deemed ineligible because of the nature of their jobs.