White House Instructs Agencies to Begin Process of Returning Some Employees to Their Offices

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House April 19.

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House April 19. Patrick Semansky/Shutterstock.com

Operations will remain abnormal for the coming months and will vary widely across the country.

Federal agencies should begin considering ways to bring employees back to their offices, according to new Trump administration guidance, though the White House left much of the decision making to individual leaders based on local conditions. 

The new guidance, released jointly by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, seeks to align federal agencies with guidance the White House unveiled last week for states to use when assessing how and when to reopen businesses and other entities in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Agencies will therefore follow state mandates and maintain significant discretion on when to take a variety of steps. Much of the memorandum spelled out policies that agencies could or may take, without prescribing specific timelines or actions. 

“Given the diversity of federal workforce missions, geographic locations and the needs of individuals within the workforce itself, this transition will require continued diligence and flexibility from federal agencies and the federal workforce,” OMB and OPM said. 

For now, agencies should continue deploying maximum telework. They should then move toward lifting mandatory telework in low-risk geographic areas while still allowing additional telework flexibilities as needed, especially for those employees with child care needs. Finally, agencies should lift “maximum” telework at all locations before settling into normal, “optimized” operations. The administration encouraged “creative solutions,” such as creating rotational cohorts in which employees come into the office for five days per month. 

“As conditions change, agency heads should revisit telework policies and agreements in order to continue progressing to normal operations or address changing conditions while retaining the needed flexibility during the response,” the guidance stated. 

Employees at a higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19 should remain on telework until “risk is minimal." OMB and OPM reminded agencies of their ongoing authority to grant weather and safety leave or excused absences for employees who are not eligible for telework.  

Healthy employees under the age of 65 “may return” to the workplace and “may” wear a face covering for their entire workdays, OMB and OPM said. Agencies can issue their own masks or “may approve” employees’ own face coverings. 

OMB and OPM told agencies to prioritize the opening of some facilities before others. 

“Agencies must prioritize capacity building for those services that are the most public-facing as well as those critical to implementing COVID-19 response efforts to help the nation's recovery,” the memo stated. They must also prioritize the opening of facilities with classified settings. 

OPM and OMB acknowledged, however, the decision may not be up to agency heads. Each General Services Administration-run building has its own designated official to make decisions on the status of the facility. Agencies should consider implementing screenings, they said, such as “a set of questions to be asked upon entry, temperature checks, visual inspection, or other methods.” They should also ensure social distancing within offices and adequate supply of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, toilet paper and other items. 

“Agencies must remain vigilant to minimize and control the impact of COVID-19 in their workplace,” OPM and OMB said. 

Agencies should make state and regional assessments the “starting point for discussion” of resuming normal operations, but should also consider school and daycare closures, mass transit availability, facility requirements and missions. Agencies may consider continuing travel restrictions for employees. 

Agency heads should delegate decision making to bureau and competent leaders, and designate a point of contact for each office location to assist with gathering relevant local information. That individual should communicate with employees in their areas to keep them apprised. 

“The role of a public servant requires a unique responsibility to lead in times of crisis and during a period of recovery,” OMB and OPM said. “In the face of this historic pandemic, the federal workforce has continued to ensure mission critical and essential services continue to meet the nation's needs. Across the nation, public servants will continue to perform a key leadership role in supporting the American people.”

In a recent survey, most federal employees said the pandemic has had a “major” or “extreme” impact on their agencies’ operations.