Most of the watchdog offices contacted by Rep. Connolly plan to conduct some form of review.
A House Democrat launched a tracker on Wednesday to follow inspectors general’s progress in reviewing their agencies' reopening plans, pleasing federal employee unions.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, established the online tool to follow the responses to letters he sent in June to 24 IG offices asking them to develop assessment plans to review their agencies’ return to offices after teleworking during the novel coronavirus pandemic and then provide them to his subcommittee. So far, 15 IG offices confirmed they are doing the investigations; seven didn’t commit to the formal reviews Connolly requested, but are working on related oversight initiatives; one is not doing anything at the moment; and one has yet to respond.
“Whether it is rushing to reopen schools or federal offices, the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to put optics ahead of science and safety,” Connolly said. “While I’m pleased that most inspectors general have opened investigations into the administration’s plans to reopen offices, just as importantly, the IGs must be allowed to do their work free of political interference.” He added, “Continued congressional oversight is necessary for full transparency and accountability.”
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 federal employees, supported Connolly and his subcommittee's endeavors to “hold federal agencies accountable for developing and implementing plans that keep employees safe when their offices reopen,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said.
“Clearly telework has been hugely successful for thousands of federal employees across the country but when they are required to return [to] their places of duty,” he told Government Executive, “Connolly's efforts will go a long way to giving them the confidence that their workspace is safe with adequate cleaning protocols, physical distancing and health screenings.”
Similarly, Steve Lenkart, executive director for the National Federation of Federal Employees, told Government Executive on Thursday, that union officials “greatly appreciate” Connolly’s efforts to ensure that federal employees are safe when they return to their workplaces. The administration’s “ignorance and failure to accept responsibility for the federal workforce has contributed to the death of civilian government workers this year,” Lenkart said. His union represents about 110,000 federal employees nationwide.
The new online tracker “is critical to motivate the IG offices that are taking a lackluster approach to their responsibility to protect the federal workforce during the pandemic,” said Lenkart. “Without them, the system falls apart pretty quickly, especially when the White House refuses to lead.”
There are “completely different levels of precautions and preparedness across the government even though we are all federal employees,” he added, which means that IGs are all the more important to ensure a safe return.
While it “may be difficult,” Joanna Friedman, a partner at the Federal Practice Group, a law firm that specializes in federal employment law, told Government Executive, that “it seems fair that the federal government should be able to implement one uniform set of safety rules” for cleaning buildings and workstations and providing safety equipment to federal employees.
After ordering federal agencies to “maximize telework” in mid-March, the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance in late April saying there won’t be one return to office day as department leaders should work with public health officials and local leaders to determine the best timing. Since then, the return process has been met with questions, confusion and issues at agencies such as the General Services Administration; Social Security Administration; Environmental Protection Agency and Agricultural Department.
In the June 15 letters, Connolly didn’t give a specific deadline, but asked for a “prompt reply.” He received responses starting on June 22 and as late as August 10.
The Small Business Administration IG told Connolly on June 29 that the office was unable to take up his request because they are prioritizing reviewing the agency’s pandemic emergency assistance programs and entrepreneurial development initiative, but will consider it for future oversight efforts. When asked for an updated comment on Thursday, the SBA IG office referred Government Executive to its June response.
Of the 24 offices, the Housing and Urban Development IG was the only one to not give Connolly a formal response. They are still in the process of preparing it, a spokesperson told Government Executive.