More Telework? Absolutely. But Far More is Needed During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Recent Office of Management and Budget guidance instructing agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees” is a start, but far more is going to have to be done to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic.

The guidance addresses “telework eligible” employees. We know that the majority of federal workers are not already telework eligible. In fact, the number of telework eligible employees dropped as a result of Trump Administration moves to cut back on telework. Those policies, attributed to mission requirements, put agencies in a position where it is more difficult for them to operate during emergencies.

Ramping up telework is going to be a challenge. Here are just a few of the issues that must be addressed:

  • Access to systems. Agencies have legitimate security requirements that must be considered. If an agency has eliminated password access to systems and requires use of a Common Access Card (CAC) or similar ID, the computer used to access systems must have a CAC reader. Such readers do not have to be built in to the computer, but agencies will not have an unlimited supply of them to hand out. Some agencies will require that the CAC be used with a government computer, but their employees may have desktop computers that they cannot take home. Dramatically ramping up access is going to be difficult for many agencies.
  • Telework agreements. The majority of federal workers do not have telework agreements in place. Even with emergency telework, they will need those agreements completed before starting to telework.
  • Nature of work. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers can work from home. Many – perhaps a million – cannot. For example, the Transportation Security Administration has more than 50,000 Transportation Security Officers and Federal Air Marshals. Customs and Border Protection has 60,000 employees, many of whom are CBP Officers and Border Patrol Agents. Most of their work cannot be done from home. The federal government has 210,000 trade and craft employees whose work (such as in shipyards and other industrial facilities or warehouses) cannot be done remotely. The Federal Aviation Administration has 18,000 Air Traffic Controllers. The Defense Commissary Agency has 2,000 Sales Store Checkers. Most agencies have security workers, such as Police Officers and Security Guards, who must be at work. There are many other occupations that require people to be present.
  • Pay issues. If an employee works in one locality pay area, but lives in another, extended full-time telework can affect pay. It may be possible for that to be waived, but it must be considered.
  • Manager biases against telework. Some people hate to admit it, but there are supervisors who simply do not like telework. Whether it is lack of trust in their employees, a preference for the way things used to be, or that they are just jerks, some managers and supervisors stand in the way of telework every chance they get. Agencies will need to make certain that type of supervisor does not have the authority to stop telework for large numbers of people because of their personal biases.

Clearly, telework is not the sole solution agencies will have to consider. Agencies already have the authority to grant advanced annual leave, up to the amount an employee will earn in the leave year. They can also grant up to 240 hours of advanced sick leave.

Weather and Safety Leave

Something that is newer is the weather and safety leave that was included in the Administrative Leave Act of 2016. While it is typically used in weather emergencies, it also includes safety matters. The law says “An agency may approve the provision of leave under this section to an employee or a group of employees without loss of or reduction in the pay of the employee or employees, leave to which the employee or employees are otherwise entitled, or credit to the employee or employees for time or service only if the employee or group of employees is prevented from safely traveling to or performing work at an approved location due to (1) an act of God; (2) a terrorist attack; or (3) another condition that prevents the employee or group of employees from safely traveling to or performing work at an approved location.”

The Coronavirus pandemic could be covered by the third provision. The law does not limit the amount of weather and safety leave that can be granted, but does provide that such leave would not typically be granted to employees who can telework. Any widespread use of the authority is almost certainly going to need White House approval. The pressure to use the leave authority may be one of the things that causes agencies to push telework to the maximum extent possible. Of course, we would also expect a lot of hard feelings from employee who are told they have to telework when they see co-workers being sent home on safety leave.

Most federal agencies are not going to shut down as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. There are too many services that must continue, borders that have to be protected, social security benefits to pay, and countless other essential needs that only the government can address. For employees who cannot telework, agencies must take necessary steps to protect them while they are working. That may mean N95 respirators and other safety measures for employees who have direct contact with the public (such as TSOs), and social distancing at work. Buildings with open work spaces will need to space the employees out so there is more distance between them while working. They will also need to consider how to keep work spaces clean and sanitized. Most office cleaning contracts include little more than emptying trash and vacuuming. Far better cleaning of areas and surfaces employees touch will be needed.

In some respects federal workers are far better positioned than private sector employees. They have outstanding leave benefits, excellent health insurance, and an employer that is not going to go broke and leave them unemployed. But there are many employees — younger ones in particular — who do not have enough leave accrued. The existing advanced leave and safety leave authorities will make it possible to ensure that federal employees make it through this crisis with their jobs and financial security intact. That should free our public servants to do what they always do and focus on their missions.

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