April 28, 2020

Van Hollen, Warren, Colleagues Demand Answers from Trump Administration on Efforts to Protect Federal Workers During Coronavirus Pandemic

Senators Press OMB and OPM to Maximize Telework Across Federal Agencies, Standardize Procedures for Handling and Disclosing COVID-19 Cases, and Not End Telework Prematurely

U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Gary C. Peters (D-Mich.), and 18 of their Senate colleagues wrote to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regarding the safety of federal workers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The senators are requesting information on the agencies' efforts to ensure that agencies maximize telework across their workforce, collect and provide data on current teleworking practices at federal agencies, standardize the procedures by which positive cases of COVID-19 are handled and disclosed, and on how OMB and OPM are evaluating when it is safe for federal employees to return to work at their physical job sites.

Joining Senators Van Hollen, Warren, Murray, and Peters sending the letter are Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus S. King, Jr. (I-Maine), Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)

"As the number of coronavirus cases and the number of deaths-including deaths of federal employees-continue to rise, it is imperative that all federal employees are appropriately protected, and have assurance that their safety will take precedence and be the highest priority in decisions about when and how they return to their job sites," the senators wrote.

As the two agencies tasked with managing human resources across the federal government, OMB and OPM have the authority and responsibility to protect federal employees and prevent them from contracting and unwittingly spreading COVID-19 during this pandemic. Last week, OMB and OPM issued a memo directing federal agencies to "incorporate" President Trump's Opening Up America Again guidelines "into agency workplace protocols," and encouraging federal agencies "to allow Federal employees and contractors to return to the office in low-risk areas." Public health experts have expressed serious concerns about these guidelines and warned that there is still not sufficient testing, tracing, or personal protective equipment to know where, and when it is safe to relax social distancing and quarantine guidelines.

In their letter, the senators noted that, although thousands of federal employees have reportedly been infected with COVID-19, teleworking has been implemented inconsistently across the federal government. The senators cited reports that some employees' requests to work remotely are being denied, even though their jobs can be done remotely, and that in some offices, senior staff are able to telework while lower-level administrative staff are required to come to work in close quarters. They highlighted a recent report that some workers might be hiding their symptoms out of fear of retaliations, because of pressure to return to work. The senators also noted that there appears to be no uniform guidance for federal agencies to handle and report positive COVID-19 cases among their workforce.

"In the face of this pandemic, your agencies should take aggressive and ongoing measures, as recommended by public health experts, to protect federal workers and prevent the deadly spread of COVID-19," the senators continued. "Additionally, this crisis has demonstrated the clear ability of a great many federal workers to work remotely via telework and has therefore renewed questions regarding why this Administration has restricted effective, efficient, and-as this moment demonstrates-beneficial telework for federal workers."

The senators raised concerns that the recently-issued OMB and OPM guidance may be taken as a signal that there is no need to make telework more widely available because further direction to reopen the government may be forthcoming. 

To address their concerns, the senators asked that OPM and OMB answer a series of questions about ensuring that agencies maximize telework, procedures among agencies for reporting and handling COVID-19 cases, how they are determining when to roll back telework guidance, and more. They requested answers to their questions by May 8, 2020.

The full text of the letter is available here.