Federal managers seek hard info on COVID-19 testing plans

In a letter sent to administration officials Thursday, the Government Managers Coalition flagged concerns that agencies and managers are ill-prepared to roll out the administration's COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements for feds.

covid-19 Test kit (Cryptographer/Shutterstock.com)

Frontline agency managers and executives have questions about how they'll implement the Biden administration's vaccination and testing requirements, they said in an Aug. 25 letter to top administration officials released publicly on Thursday.

The Government Managers Coalition, a coalition of five executive and management professional associations collectively representing over 250,000 federal executives and managers, told administration officials that they're concerned with how requirements laid down by the administration in July will be implemented. Under the scheme, feds either have to attest that they've been vaccinated or follow strict testing, masking and distancing requirements.

The letter was sent to White House Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response Jeff Zients, Office of Personnel Management Director, Kiran Ahuja and General Services Administration head Robin Carnahan.

Since the release of the new requirements, a task force with representatives from the White House COVID-19 response team, GSA, OPM and the Office of Management and Budget have released guidance about the new policies.

But the situation requires a "a paradigm shift" for how management agencies help agencies carry out policies, said Senior Executive Association President Bob Corsi in a statement about the letter.

"These are unprecedented times which require innovative problem-solving techniques that unite all levels of government," he said. "We cannot continue the same failed approach of tossing vague, general guidance at agencies in the hopes they can work out the kinks. This only causes disparate impacts and duplicative work."

One major question: how agencies will pay for the COVID-19 testing, something the White House has said will be their responsibility. As the letter points out, agencies weren't appropriated funds for this exact purpose.

The letter's authors also are also concerned about managers' role and ability to lay out the policies on the ground.

"Site managers are not trained nor equipped to develop and implement a rigorous healthcare screening protocol. Such a task, in addition to their day-to-day activities and increased hours worked during the pandemic, will undoubtedly lead to inefficiencies in their core responsibilities, as well as an inadequate screening protocol," the letter says.

Typically, federal supervisors go through training upon reaching that role, said Stephanie Rapp-Tully, a partner at Tully Rinckey who specializes in federal employment law.

"Tasking managers with standing up a public health testing structure and a system for keeping personal health data private, is asking a great deal from agencies from across government with no prior expertise in this area. This effort requires many more answers to actually implement the guidance on the ground," said Federal Managers Association President Craig Carter in a statement.

The group also raised concerns about disciplining noncompliant employees. The administration has said that feds who don't comply with testing requirements or lie about their vaccination status would face discipline.

"Managers are likely to face employment disputes enforcing COVID-19 protocols, especially as the Administration strengthens potential disciplinary consequences to employees. How will agencies protect and support these managers?" they wrote. "Managers are left choosing accountability for a worker who is disregarding the rules or having sufficient staffing to perform the central duties they are tasked with."

The group also wrote that they're unsure how the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force and OPM are guaranteeing that agencies comply with their guidance. Agencies "often" interpret the same OPM guidance differently, they wrote.

Finally, the coalition also flagged staffing concerns stemming from the effects of the pandemic on managers.

With staffing and safety requirements in the workplace, many managers have had to take on additional duties like opening mail and scanning documents for employees that can't come into the office, they said.

"Consequently, we are observing managers voluntarily downgrading their positions, returning to bargaining unit eligible line roles or simply putting in paperwork for retirement and in some cases disability," they wrote. "We are seeing many employees unwilling to step up and apply for management positions."

The group requested that the White House monitor and make plans to remedy the staffing issues and meet with them on the vaccination and testing requirements.