Surge in Coronavirus Cases Raises New Questions About Agencies' Office Reopenings

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Return of employees at the Defense Department has corresponded with a 35% spike in cases there.

A surge in the spread of the novel coronavirus has left many questioning decisions to reopen federal offices and military installations across the country, and employees and lawmakers are warning that agencies are not taking proper steps to ensure the safety of  employees. 

A group of Democratic senators in the national capital region on Thursday sent a letter to Michael Rigas and Russel Vought, the acting directors of the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget, respectively, imploring them to continue instructing agencies in the area to allow for maximum telework. At the outset of the pandemic federal agencies across the country sent huge numbers of workers home to perform their duties remotely, but in recent weeks agencies have increasingly started calling them back to their offices. 

The Defense Department, for example, entered into “phase two” of its reopening plan at the end of June. That enabled up to 80% of employees who typically report to the Pentagon to return to their offices. Since that time, Defense has reported a 35% spike in coronavirus cases among its civilian workforce. That is roughly double the rate of increase in the United States. 

As of last week, Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas McCaffery said the department had not yet seen a surge in illness and hospitalizations. He noted there were “upticks in the civilian sector,” but suggested those were tied to regions that were seeing outbreaks in the larger population. Thomas Muir, director of the department’s Washington Headquarters Services, said last week that cases in the Washington region were trending downward, leading to the decision to call employees back to their offices. He said prior to the current surge in cases, the Pentagon was reporting significantly smaller numbers than “surrounding communities.” 

“The Pentagon is a safe place to work and we take great measures to make sure that it's a safe place for our workforce to work,” Muir said. “We have a well-educated and informed workforce. They know what they need to do to protect themselves and their family. And you can see it in the hallways here in the Pentagon.”

A Defense spokesperson added the Pentagon is requiring cloth face coverings for all employees, social distancing, temperature taking and the disinfecting of common areas. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about the current surge of cases or if the Pentagon would consider sending more employees home to telework. 

In their letter, Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., accused the Trump administration of pushing agencies to “end maximum telework prematurely.” OMB and OPM guidance for reopening offices only protects certain workers deemed at high risk of severe illness and conflicts with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments, they said.  

“Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread,” the senators wrote. 

The Government Accountability Office recently criticized the Trump administration for lacking a comprehensive, detailed plan for bringing civil servants back to their offices. 

“We have to have confidence, and employees have to have confidence, that as we reopen they’ll be safe in their workplaces and be safe in their interaction with the public,” Christopher Mihm, managing director for strategic issues at GAO, told a congressional committee, “and the public has to have confidence they will feel safe in their interactions with government.”

The administration has consistently butted heads with its employee unions over reopening plans. The groups have issued specific demands agencies should meet before bringing employees back, such as sufficient personal protective equipment, testing capacity, office remodeling to enable social distancing and established benchmarks for COVID-19 spread in the relevant region. The American Federation of Government Employees has specifically challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s aggressive recalling of workers, which the EPA inspector general is now investigating

The National Treasury Employees Union has raised concerns about the Agriculture Department’s office reopening, saying management has failed to communicate to employees how it would protect them and sterilize their offices. 

“For over three months, agency employees have been engaged in vital mission work, much of it directly related to assisting the American people in this time of unprecedented economic dislocation, while operating at 100% telework,” Daniel R. P. Cline, executive vice president of the NTEU chapter that represents USDA Food and Nutrition Service employees in D.C., wrote in a recent letter to lawmakers. “These employees have been lauded by agency leadership for tremendous success and customer service while working from home. Therefore, there is no clear reason to rush employees back into the office in an unsafe way.”

Tony Reardon, NTEU’s national president, applauded the senators’ letter in calling on federal agencies to pump the brakes. 

“We agree that forcing employees back onto public transportation and into crowded offices could be a setback and hasten the spread of coronavirus,” Reardon said. “And as long as normal child care providers like daycares and summer camps remain largely shut down, it is unrealistic to expect federal workers to be able to go back to normal office hours at this time.”