July 09, 2020

Cardin, Van Hollen Urge Administration to Halt Haphazard Plans to Bring Thousands of Federal Employees into Offices as Nationwide COVID-19 Cases Spike

Current Guidance Brings Federal Workers Back Into the Office Prematurely, Negates Maximum Telework Policies

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.), sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Acting Director Russell T. Vought and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Acting Director Michael J. Rigas, urging them to reverse course on plans by several agencies to bring federal employees back to their worksites prematurely, by issuing clear guidance to extend maximum telework throughout the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The Senators begin, “We write to express our opposition to plans to require many federal employees in the National Capital Region to return to their worksites. The current guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is encouraging these unsafe actions, and we urge you to issue new guidance to better protect the federal workforce and surrounding communities from the increasing spread of COVID-19.”

They continue, “As we are seeing around the nation, premature reopenings are leading to new waves of COVID-19 cases. It is especially important for federal agencies to have clear guidance that sets a positive example. As of July 8th, more than 3,000,000 Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 131,700 Americans have died.”

The Senators note that current OPM/OMB guidance conflicts with direction from other members of the Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that of state and local governments. For example, “In the National Capital Region, many federal agencies are bringing employees back to the office instead of teleworking, even though the reopening guidelines for Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all urge employers to continue telework as much as possible. Unlike these federal agencies, governments in Maryland, Virginia, and the District continue to utilize liberal telework policies and limited office capacity for public sector workers.”

They go on to underscore that prior to the pandemic, 40% of rush hour Metro commuters were federal workers, so dismantling maximum telework could endanger the health and safety of the entire region. “And since 85 percent of federal employees work outside of our region, it endangers the entire country. We urge you to issue clearer guidance directing agencies to continue maximizing telework throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Senators conclude.

Senators Cardin and Van Hollen have urged maximum telework and protections for federal employees and contractors throughout the pandemic. In April, they joined a letter to OPM and OMB seeking answers on inconsistent and confusing guidance, and raising concerns about ending maximum telework prematurely. In March, the Senators sent a letter to President Trump, pressing him to sign an executive order maximizing telework for federal workers. Additionally in March, the Senators signed a letter to OPM urging that federal employees who follow recommended public health guidance to limit the spread of the coronavirus not be penalized.

The full text of the letter is available here and below.

Dear Mr. Rigas and Mr. Vought:

We write to express our opposition to plans to require many federal employees in the National Capital Region to return to their worksites. The current guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is encouraging these unsafe actions, and we urge you to issue new guidance to better protect the federal workforce and surrounding communities from the increasing spread of COVID-19.

As we are seeing around the nation, premature reopenings are leading to new waves of COVID-19 cases. It is especially important for federal agencies to have clear guidance that sets a positive example. As of July 8th, more than 3,000,000 Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 131,700 Americans have died.

Federal employees and contractors have been teleworking successfully throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency, keeping vital services running and implementing economic relief programs and measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many workers in our area still lack access to regular child care due to COVID-19, and ordering these workers back into the office makes it needlessly harder for them to balance work and family obligations during the pandemic.

The current guidance is encouraging agencies to end maximum telework prematurely. COVID-19 is a deadly threat to anyone – and anyone can carry the virus and transmit it to others – but the current OPM/OMB guidance only supports sustained maximum telework throughout the pandemic for certain workers deemed to be high risk. Further, the guidance sometimes conflicts with direction from other members of the Trump Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread.

In the National Capital Region, many federal agencies are bringing employees back to the office instead of teleworking, even though the reopening guidelines for Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all urge employers to continue telework as much as possible. Unlike these federal agencies, governments in Maryland, Virginia, and the District continue to utilize liberal telework policies and limited office capacity for public sector workers.

Prior to the pandemic, 40 percent of Metro commuters during rush hour in the National Capitol Region were federal employees. Any increased crowding on trains and buses in the National Capital Region will only further increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Your current guidance is endangering the health and safety of federal workers and everyone in our region. And since 85 percent of federal employees work outside of our region, it endangers the entire country. We urge you to issue clearer guidance directing agencies to continue maximizing telework throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sincerely,

 

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