After restricting telework opportunities for federal workers, the White House is now finding that it has to loosen them in order to keep the government up and running during the coronavirus outbreak.
Several federal agencies had made a point of reining in telecommuting during the Trump era, arguing that workers were more productive when they were required to be present in the office. But the growing number of cases of COVID-19 has forced employers of all kinds to expand remote work in order to limit transmission of the virus. The federal government is no different.
The Securities and Exchange Commission announced Monday that a Washington-based employee was exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As a result, SEC leadership advised all employees at the agency’s D.C. headquarters to work from home until further notice ”out of an abundance of caution,” The Washington Post reported.
The Department of Health and Human Services has also loosened its telework guidelines. In a letter to employees Monday, an official said the agency was testing its IT systems “to ensure we are prepared for greater than usual telework.” Those who are already eligible to work remotely were told to take their laptops home every day in case the office closed. Those who don’t have a telework plan were told “to work with their supervisors to put one in place.”
The looser telecommuting policy marks a turnaround for HHS. As HuffPost reported last June, the agency’s leadership made a point of tightening up telecommuting rights, a move that rankled employees. HHS leaders implemented a collective bargaining agreement with narrower telework opportunities over the objections of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents HHS employees.
The public health emergency has given the federal government little choice but to prepare for more remote work. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the civilian workforce, put out new guidance for agencies over the weekend saying they should have written telework policies covering “as many employees who are willing to participate.”
OPM said supervisors should consider “ad hoc telework arrangements” to create “social distancing” during the outbreak.
But according to the NTEU, the policies have varied from one agency to the next, and several agencies have not officially relaxed their guidelines yet.
The union’s president, Tony Reardon, issued a statement Monday saying tens of thousands of workers at the Internal Revenue Service were still “awaiting detailed information” on telecommuting and other changes due to the outbreak. He said he had asked the agency to increase the number of days employees could work from home, and waive a requirement that frequent telecommuters work in the office at least twice per pay period.
“This would be especially critical in workplaces where local schools have closed,” Reardon said.
Even though employees aren’t supposed to care for kids while they’re technically working from home, OPM said agencies could consider that scenario if schools and child care centers end up closing due to the coronavirus.
The recent cutbacks to telecommuting have been part of a broader fight between the Trump administration and the federal workforce. The White House has portrayed federal employees as part of the “swamp,” and even forced office relocations in the hopes some workers would simply quit.
The Trump administration’s crackdown on telecommuting apparently began at the Agriculture Department, when Secretary Sonny Perdue discovered that an employee he needed to speak with was working remotely. “In response, he slashed by half a robust program used by tens of thousands of employees,” the Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported in January. Similar cuts soon came to the Interior Department, Education Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Federal union leaders told HuffPost last year that telecommuting had become one of their primary sticking points in negotiations with agencies. Collective bargaining within the federal government has reached a low point, with some agencies trying to unilaterally impose contracts against the wishes of employee unions. The federal bodies that referee those disputes are now stocked with Trump appointees likely to sign off on language favored by agency heads.
The site Government Executive reported that the agencies that have cut telework arrangements have taken some of the biggest hits in employee satisfaction surveys. For instance, the Agriculture Department suffered a 6-point drop in overall satisfaction and a four-point drop in engagement in 2018.
The share of Agriculture employees who said they were happy with the telework guidelines plunged more than 40 points.