Fedweek

Biden administration guidance has made the safety policies for employees working onsite more complete and more consistent than they were last year under the Trump administration, GAO has said.

GAO said that policies issued last year on bringing employees back to their regular worksites after being put on telework due to the pandemic, “varied and did not consistently cover” the standards set by the CDC and other agencies. For example, while all such plans the GAO reviewed called for phased returns to the office, some relied on their own analyses while some took local conditions and policies into account in deciding what phase applied. That meant that employees “located in the same area, but working for different agencies, might have been subject to different safety protocols.”

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Further, some agencies allowed for variation by subcomponent or occupation even within an area and had differing policies regarding who made the decisions. Building occupancy limits—which effectively determine how many employees must work offsite—also varied widely from 10 to 40 percent in the initial return phase and from 25 to 80 percent in the next.

Only eight of the 34 areas of federal guidance were reflected in the policies of all 24 agencies GAO reviewed. Topics most commonly omitted included protections for employees who communicated safety concerns; training of employees on the risks of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace; protection for employees performing health screenings; leave flexibilities for employees at high risk; improvements in ventilation; and mask-wearing requirements.

It said that plans developed earlier this year in response to a Biden administration order generally reflected model practices for mask wearing, contact tracing, monitoring of symptoms, confidentiality of medical information, cleaning, limits on visitors, and more. The most common shortcomings under those plans involve processes for handling suspected COVID-19 cases in the workplace, identifying points of contact for questions related to the protection of medical data, and installing physical barriers where appropriate.

It also said that in contrast to 2020 policies in which “there was no initial government-wide oversight of initial agency reentry plans,” the creation this year of the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force “supported the overall consistency of agency workplace safety planning.”

GAO also noted that guidance issued in June of this year required agencies to produce a new set of reentry and post-reentry plans, which were due to OMB the following month. However, those plans were largely set aside in the wake of the resurgence of infections that began in late summer; GAO said a review of those plans was “outside of our scope of review.”

GAO sent a draft of the report to agencies for comment but only a few did, mostly making technical suggestions. Among the agencies that didn’t comment was OPM.

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