Federal workforce now on notice about possible mass telecommuting

MANHATTAN, NY – MARCH 5: Mount Sinai Health System hospital located in Manhattan, NY, holds personal protective equipment (PPE) refresher training course for staff on March 5th, 2020. These courses are being held at the hospital since the outbreak of the Coronavirus in January. (Photo: Sharon Pulwer for The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is racing to develop contingency plans that would allow hundreds of thousands of employees to work remotely full time, an extreme scenario to limit the coronavirus that would test whether the government can carry out its mission from home offices and kitchen tables.

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees policy for the workforce of 2.1 million, has urged agency heads in recent days to “immediately review” their telework policies, sign paperwork with employees laying out their duties, issue laptops and grant access to computer networks.

The administration has not issued a widespread mandate but some offices already have acted. The Securities and Exchange Commission late Monday became the first federal agency in Washington to clear 2,400 employees from its headquarters after discovering that an employee might be infected.

That emergency decision follows similar steps by more than a dozen federal field offices in the Seattle area, the Interior Department in Denver and NASA’s Silicon Valley research center, which either have closed or shifted to telework as some employees tested positive for the virus.

On Tuesday, the International Trade Administration started sending staff home to self-quarantine if they have traveled out of the country. The State Department told its staff to set up emergency teleconference drills – and alternate who comes into the office to use classified systems to ensure that colleagues only gather in small groups, according to an internal memo.

The virus’ fast spread led many private companies weeks ago to send their staffs home to work remotely. But some corners of the federal government, the country’s largest employer, are only now confronting what could be an unprecedented shift to how they serve the public – for weeks or even months.

Close to half the federal workforce was eligible to telework when President Donald Trump took office, on average one or two days a week, for snow days or sporadically. But few did it full time. Then the Trump administration scaled back working from home as a regular practice at multiple large agencies.

Now managers are scrambling to expand the policy. Employees who now telework a day or two a week could expand to full time. Others could work from home for the first time.

Remote work is the linchpin of the White House’s escalating emergency planning efforts, which could be deployed as the crisis worsens. With coronavirus cases now in 36 states and the District of Columbia, the outbreak is forcing agencies to assess who on their staffs is set up to telework, who must stay on the job to serve the public and how to ensure their safety while keeping essential services going.

Expanding telework already is bringing complications, among them administrative and equipment hurdles and restrictions for thousands of employees who work with classified material and can’t bring it home.

Anxious employees are waiting for instructions that have so far been uneven. The Pentagon says it’s moving quickly to ask employees who can to sign new telework agreements. The Internal Revenue Service, at the height of tax season, is not. Officials are expecting large numbers of absences in either case.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Paul Carlson, director of the Seattle Federal Executive Board, an association of senior officials that last week recommended telework for the area’s 22,000 employees.

Federal personnel director Dale Cabaniss described a “rapidly evolving situation” as she provided more detailed guidance over the weekend to address workplace rules, including a question that until now was unheard of: What happens if the kids are home because school is canceled – but telework policy doesn’t allow their parents to work with them in the house?

(The answer: Agencies might be flexible in an emergency like this, but employees will have to keep close track of their work hours).

OPM cannot force an office to shift its staff to remote work. “Each agency is responsible for determining how and when to employ telework when considering the unique needs of its mission and employees,” spokesman Anthony Marucci said in an email.

But President Trump has expansive authority to close an agency, whether he declares a national emergency or not. Just 15 percent of the workforce works in the District region, and every state has a federal presence.

Officials are not publicly releasing details of their emergency plans as they try to balance transparency with alarmism. Some unions that represent federal employees, though, say they’ve had little communication from managers.

“We’re hearing crickets,” said James Muhammad-Mason, a debt specialist at the Social Security Administration in Chicago, where several of the state’s coronavirus cases have been diagnosed. “People are concerned. I have a colleague taking care of an ill parent. I have kids. What if we get the virus and give it to them?”

Social Security’s top managers are at odds with many of its 60,000 employees across the country after canceling a 6-year-old telework pilot program for 12,000 operations employees in November – then slashing it in multiple of other departments last month.

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In Seattle, Carlson says he’s fielding calls from managers whose staffs must report to the office, from weather forecasters to Secret Service agents. They’re part of the massive workforce with public-facing or high-security jobs – IRS call-center employees, passport processors, food-safety inspectors, shipbuilders, wildland firefighters, nurses caring for veterans, postal workers. They directly serve the public, every day.

So far their agencies have issued only vague public statements about their welfare.

“We are working closely with the [Centers for Disease Control] and monitoring the situation, and we remain prepared to deal with contingencies under our continuity of government plans,” Mark Hinkle, a Social Security spokesman, said.

Other departments have canceled nonessential travel and meetings. Cleaning crews are disinfecting bathrooms and other public services more frequently than usual.

On Monday, the IRS played down concerns over disruptions to tax season. “Normal IRS operations are continuing, and we are seeing a strong, smooth filing season for the nation,” the agency said in a statement.

Documents known as continuity of operations plans have guided federal emergency planners since the Cold War, when President Dwight Eisenhower issued the first measures to ensure the government could continue to function after a nuclear attack.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, new blueprints evolved to protect the homeland from another terrorist attack, and eventually from flu pandemics.

They lay out how agencies would operate essential services with skeletal staffs and alternative work sites where agency leaders would go.

About 12 years ago,with broadband technology in most homes, telework became a key feature of the plans. But they have yet to be activated on a wide scale. The closest call was during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, a novel influenza virus known as the swine flu. The government ramped up for a robust response, but no federal offices were affected.

“We were racing the clock,” recalled Craig Fugate, who ran the disaster relief agency for eight years during the Obama administration, “but we never got to the point of closing anything in government down.”

The Trump administration, concerned that remote work was being abused, has pushed to strictly limit it. “A lot of people look at telework and think, it’s just some nice-to-have thing for employees,” said Jeffrey Neal, a former Homeland Security personnel chief who writes a blogon federal personnel policies.

“What they don’t talk about much is the emergency planning aspect of it,” Neal said. “It’s not like you can pull the trigger now and say, ‘Poof! We have a telework program.”

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About 43 percent of federal employees were eligible to work from home in fiscal 2017, the last year for which data is available. The number has declined since then, but it’s unclear by how much.

With coronavirus planning, managers are realizing that shifting gears is not as simple as telling someone to power up their computer at home. Not everyone has broadband access at home – or a government -issued laptop that’s generally required to telework. Employees need access to agency networks. Some of their work contains sensitive material that can’t be exposed in a home setting.

“Agencies will have a hard time retrofitting what they’ve been scaling down, and now they’re in the middle of a World Health Organization-designated pandemic,” said David Cann, director of field services and education at the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers.

Some District-area House Democrats are so furious about the cuts that last week they introduced legislation to force the administration to reinstate telework where it has been curtailed.

Agencies have said little publicly about their workforce plans. The Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it had closed its Seattle field office for two weeks after an employee tested positive for coronavirus. But the agency declined to say how many employees were affected or could work remotely.

Then on Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told employees in an email that it was reopening a week early after professionally cleaning the office.

At Housing and Urban Development, some employees are resisting signing agreements because they don’t want to be required to work if colleagues who can’t telework get paid to stay home anyway, according to Ashaki Robinson Johns, president of AFGE Local 476, which represents HUD employees around Washington.

A senior HUD official, who requested anonymity, acknowledged that employees cannot be forced to sign a telework agreement.

About 2,300 scientists and other staff at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, have been on mandatory telework since Friday, a directive that followed a nationwide work-from-home test run for all employees.

Anyone who didn’t happen to bring their laptop home over the weekend was unable access their work, though.

As the virus spread in Seattle, employees at the EPA’s field office asked their managers last week to work from home full time until the infections abate, but were told no: They could only telework once a week.

Kate Spaulding, an enforcement compliance officer, said she was told she would need a note from her doctor stating that she was a “vulnerable person” by the Centers for Disease Control’s definition.

“As a federal employee, I am being blocked from putting into place strategies that have been strongly suggested by my local government and health advisors,” she wrote in an email last week.

The office finally was cleared to telework last Friday “until further notice.”

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