The easing of mask-wearing requirements in federal buildings for those who are fully vaccinated has raised questions about whether the change will contribute to a further rollback of telework by federal employees—which even down a bit from its peak last year remains at historically high levels.
An OMB email to agencies announcing the new policy states that OMB will issue further information and continue to work “on the planning already underway related to the federal personnel policies and work environment for after it is safe for increased return of federal workers to the physical workplace.”
In the meantime, agencies have begun putting out their own guidance. DoD for example issued a memo stating that civilian and military personnel meeting the definition of fully vaccinated—at least two weeks beyond the last required dose—are “no longer required to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at DoD facilities.” However, it added that “All DoD personnel should continue to comply with CDC guidance regarding areas where masks should be worn, including within airports.”
It also said that the department is working on revised “force health protection” guidance and that in the interim, commanders and supervisors may make exceptions “as necessary to ensure a safe workplace.” They further “should not ask about an employee’s vaccination status or use information about an employee’s vaccination status to make decisions about how and when employees will report to a workplace instead of teleworking,” it says.
The new policy on mask-wearing comes at a time of increasing calls from members of Congress—mainly but not all Republicans—to bring more federal employees back to their official duty stations and for more often, especially in agencies such as the SSA and IRS where many offices for in-person service remain closed or only partially open.
At the same time, the House is advancing legislation (HR-978) to set standards for agencies to meet before returning workers to physical worksites, a bill similar to one that passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate.
They would have to produce safety plans would have to include testing, contact-tracing, and vaccination protocols; descriptions of the personal protective equipment that the agency will provide; special considerations for high-risk employees; procedures to be used if it is necessary to reverse on-site requirements, and more. Agencies would have to publish those plans on their public websites, communicate them directly to employees and track that all employees have received them.
In approving the bill, the House Oversight and Reform Committee defeated a Republican amendment that in effect would have required a general recall of teleworking employees to their normal duty stations within two months.