US agencies urged to expand telework as corona spreads

By on 16/03/2020
Federal employees are said to be frustrated the government is not doing enough to protect them from coronavirus. Image by Thor Deichmann via Pixabay.

The White House has recommended that federal agencies allow more employees to work remotely, in a bid to mitigate the risks posed by the coronavirus, COVID-19.  

In a memo published on 12 March, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Russel T. Vought encouraged all federal executive branch departments and agencies to “maximise telework flexibilities” for workers that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified as being at greater risk of serious complications from coronavirus.

These include what the CDC describes as “older adults”; people who have serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease; those who have high blood pressure; and those with compromised immune systems. Vought also encouraged agencies to consider allowing CDC-identified “special populations”, including pregnant women, to telework.

The memo said employees can self-identify as belonging to one of these at-risk groups, and are not required to present certification by a medical professional to evidence their condition – as would usually be the case.

“In light of the evolving situation concerning the novel coronavirus, the administration wants to ensure that department and agency leaders assertively safeguard the health and safety of their workforce,” Vought said.

In updated guidance published on Sunday, Vought asked all federal executive branch departments and agencies to “offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees” in Washington D.C., “consistent with operational needs of the departments and agencies as determined by their heads”.

He added that agency heads should develop an operational plan that maximises resources “to most safely and efficiently deliver these mission-critical functions and other government services”. He suggested such plans could include staggered work schedules.

Telework for all workers?

Vought did not expressly endorse the Office of Personnel Management’s recommendation that agencies should sign up “as many employees as possible” for telework – across the States as well as in Washington – but did suggest agencies consider expanding telework to all workers. Agencies “are encouraged to consult with local public health officials and the CDC about whether to extend telework flexibilities more broadly to all eligible teleworkers in areas in which either such local officials or the CDC have determined there is community spread,” the memo said.

The OMB also encouraged departments and agencies to approve leave for safety reasons to those employees identified by the CDC as higher risk who are not telework-eligible – and in the updated guidance, to employees working in Washington D.C., regardless of whether they are considered at higher risk of coronavirus complications or not. The memo said federal executive branch departments and agencies “may also grant safety leave due to a condition that prevents the employee or group of employees from safely travelling to or performing work at an approved location”. Vought said ‘weather’ and safety leave may be granted at agencies’ discretion.

The news follows guidance published by the Office of Personnel Management on 3 March, outlining the need to expand the use of telework to maintain operations and encouraging federal workers to reduce non-essential travel. Four days later, it published updated guidelines for agency leaders after Democratic senators called for the agency to take concrete steps to protect federal employees and ensure they would not be penalised for taking health precautions.

One Treasury official told CNN: “There is no central leadership, everyone is just making ad-hoc decisions. It is actually terrifying.”

Departments and agencies are scrambling to introduce measures to protect federal government workers from exposure to coronavirus. The Department of Defense is set to reduce its on-site workforce by as much as 50%, a US official told CNN, while the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced on Friday that it had relaxed its telework policy. The move follows a letter sent by three Democratic senators to SSA commissioner Andrew Saul, in which they said they were “deeply concerned” about the paucity of the agency’s response to the outbreak.

President Trump declared the coronavirus crisis a national emergency on Friday.

UK to follow suit?

Meanwhile, in the UK the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) announced that face-to-face assessments for all sickness and disability benefits will be suspended for three months, subject to review, from 17 March. Assessments will instead take place over the phone or be paper-based.

The move is a precautionary measure designed to protect vulnerable people from unnecessary risk of exposure to coronavirus, as the government moves into the “delay phase” of its coronavirus response. The decision will radically reduce contact between benefits claimants in offices providing DWP services, and could clear the way for more DWP staff to begin working from home.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Leonard Cooper

    17/03/2020 at

    Thank You very much for the info. I am a diabetic and have high blood pressure. What do You recommend? Also I do work at Roybal Campus.

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