Unions Report No Sign of Telework Flexibilities Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

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Although both OPM and the CDC have strongly encouraged allowing employees to work remotely to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, several agencies have yet to respond to those recommendations.

Agencies on the front lines of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back telework so far have shown little sign of relenting in the face of the novel coronavirus, despite the federal government’s HR and medical agencies strongly encouraging expansion of workplace flexibilities.

On Feb. 3, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidance to agency heads on how to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of a potential outbreak of COVID-19. In addition to allowing agencies to authorize weather and safety leave for asymptomatic employees who are quarantined and sick leave for workers who have fallen ill, OPM described telework as a “critical tool during emergency situations,” and encouraged them to be ready to use it to help prevent transmission of the disease.

“Agencies should maximize their telework capacity by entering into telework agreements with as many telework-eligible employees as possible and by conducting exercises to test employees’ ability to access agency networks from home,” OPM wrote. “Managers should ensure that there are effective processes in place for communicating efficiently with employees who are teleworking.”

Later that month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health issued a joint statement highlighting the findings of a report by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and other federal scientists, which also encourages deployment of telework to help combat the disease.

“Given the apparent efficiency of virus transmission, everyone should be prepared for COVID-19 to gain a foothold throughout the world, including in the United States,” NIH and CDC wrote. “If the disease begins to spread in U.S. communities, containment may no longer be a realistic goal and response efforts likely will need to transition to various mitigation strategies, which could include isolating ill people at home, closing schools and encouraging telework.”

Although the reports of new cases of infection and deaths attributable to coronavirus continue to multiply across the country, three agencies that have significantly rolled back employees’ access to telework under the Trump administration remain silent on whether they will heed OPM, CDC and NIH’s advice.

The Agriculture Department, the Social Security Administration and the Education Department all significantly cut employees’ ability to work remotely over the last two years. Federal employee unions told Government Executive that they have heard little from the agencies’ leadership on coronavirus preparation, let alone re-expanding telework.

“We support OPM’s focus on employee health and safety and its coronavirus advisory clearly illustrates the value of the very program too many agencies and managers are trying to restrict or eliminate,” said Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “At NTEU, we have not seen widespread evidence that agencies are taking such action [to maximize telework capacity]. This is a time for federal agencies to be proactive in the face of the coronavirus threat and address employee concerns before the situation worsens.”

The American Federation of Government Employees Council 115, which represents employees at the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearing Operations, requested that the agency reinstate telework for employees in light of the coronavirus threat. The office oversees more than 160 hearing offices across the country, where administrative law judges conduct hearings with applicants for disability benefits.

“On February 25, 2020, the parties discussed telework in relation to the novel coronavirus/COVID-19,” the union wrote in a grievance filing. “[SSA Associate Commissioner James] Julian again demurred with respect to OPM’s direction. The agency stated that it would follow advice from the CDC, notwithstanding the fact that SSA’s human resources office is supposed to follow direction from OPM.”

Later that day, the CDC issued its joint statement with NIH, which the union shared with the agency.

“This report was shared with SSA by [AFGE Council 215 President Richard] Couture the same day, with Couture’s urging that it take action to restore and expand telework,” the union wrote. “The agency has not responded.”

Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency is monitoring the situation and leaders are prepared for “contingencies,” but did not say whether the agency’s plans involve telework or other workplace flexibilities.

“We are working closely with the CDC and remain prepared to deal with contingencies under our continuity of government plans,” Hinkle said.