As much of the U.S. closes down or institutes remote work policies in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus, a majority of the country’s 2.1 million federal employees were expected to report to work this morning. And those workplaces consist of tightly packed cubicles and enclosed work areas designed for hundreds or thousands of people.
The phenomenon contradicts many of the federal, state and local mandates and advice about limiting exposure and gatherings of more than 50 people. The federal government has failed to issue clear policies about whether employees can work from home, leaving many workers in a panic as the COVID-19 pandemic ramps up.
The White House did issue stronger guidelines for federal workers in the Washington, D.C. area last night, asking agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” for eligible employees, according to a ProPublica article. Agencies were also asked to “use all existing authorities” to offer telework to other employees. The guidance does not apply to the majority of the two million people who make up the civilian federal workforce, not counting the U.S. Postal Service. And only about 15 percent of that workforce is based in the Washington, D.C. area.
Many private sector companies have already issued mandates that their employees work from home to minimize spread of the coronavirus. The federal government’s failure to release clear guidelines sends a conflicting message during a time of crisis. And workers are beginning to complain that their agencies’ leaders have failed to issue broad policies encouraging employees to work from home.
The Department of Justice, which employs more than 100,000 workers, sent out messages last week alerting employees to one positive case of coronavirus within the department and another case where symptoms were present. The DOJ allegedly sanitized the building where a worker displayed symptoms and told staff members they could return to the office the next morning.
“People are just beside themselves,” an anonymous DOJ official told ProPublica. “Their approach was just to clean a couple floors and they thought that somehow addressed the problem.” The Justice Department has not commented on the matter.
At the State Department, things are even more unclear. The Department has no comprehensive remote working policy, although employees have been told to limit travel. Managers are determining who can telework on an individual basis, according to employee interview with ProPublica. In one office, for instance, half the staff was instructed to work from home in the coming week. In another, a meeting attendee complained of a fever and sore throat. Coworkers were given the option of teleworking with “manager approval.”
Interior Department employees have been instructed to be “telework ready” as of Friday, but have not received widespread approval for remote work. The murky advice has led to managers adopting their own responses to remote work scheduling.
“We’re handling situations on a case-by-case basis and are adjusting our employee guidance accordingly as the guidance of leading authorities is updated,” said an Interior Department spokesperson.
Edited by Maurice Nagle