Update, March 17, 2020: On Tuesday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told employees it will begin moving to full-time telework on Wednesday, “except for our ongoing response activities and essential campus functions such as support for our laboratories,” according to an internal email seen by ProPublica. All conferences and in-person meetings “need to be postponed or held remotely,” the email said.
As the president urged Americans on Monday to keep gatherings to fewer than 10 people, his administration left many federal workers still confused: Should they show up for work or not?
This follows a yearslong push by the Trump administration to sharply reduce telework across federal agencies, a shift that has hindered efforts to protect the nation’s largest workforce without slowing critical government functions.
Even the country’s leading public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had not directed all employees to work at home after it announced Monday the first instance of a CDC employee testing positive for the coronavirus.
Employees in one CDC unit in Atlanta were asked to telework Monday and Tuesday to test their technology but are expected to return to work Wednesday, one CDC contractor said.
“Since the CDC is the one making these recommendations, that’s what’s really amazing to me,” said the contractor, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the press. “We still have no official instructions to telework. Nothing has changed.”
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment about the agency’s telework policies. An email to CDC employees on Friday, also seen by ProPublica, stated that some telework restrictions were being relaxed, and it announced an agencywide “telework exercise” to take place this month, with the goal of at least 80% of CDC staff being able to work from home.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. The civilian federal government workforce consists of about 2 million people, not counting the United States Postal Service. The Obama administration embraced teleworking, which has also grown more common in the private sector in recent years.
A White House official justified the Trump administration’s effort to cut telework in January, saying “telework is not proving the most effective way of delivering.” But critics of the administration suspect it is trying to make federal employment less attractive and encourage employees to leave.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the CDC, said the agency’s policies are guided by the White House’s Office of Personnel Management. The response to the coronavirus “is a rapidly evolving situation, and HHS is working with state and local health officials to ensure that all proper workplace flexibilities are utilized to protect our employees,” the spokesperson said.
One employee who showed up for work on Tuesday morning at the nearly empty headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., said her agency has received almost no guidance from senior officials as to whether they should stay home or not.
“Some managers are totally reasonable and some are very much not reasonable, and that’s when you need to have some specific guidance that comes from upper management, and there just has not been any,” said Ashaki Robinson Johns, president of Local 476 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents HUD employees around Washington.
HUD spokesman Matt Schuck said the agency remains open and has “permitted the use of telework to all employees who wish to do so.”
The Social Security Administration, where management’s drive to reduce telework has been particularly aggressive in recent months, announced that starting Tuesday it would close local offices to the public. The agency’s decision followed urging by members of Congress and agency employees, including about 25 employee complaints to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration about dangers posed by working in close quarters and dealing with the public.
One complaint filed last week by Indiana-based claims specialist Bill Price, an AFGE official, accused SSA of “intentionally placing employees in an unsafe and potentially deadly work environment by failing to implement even minimal safeguards for the employees, actively prohibiting employees from taking reasonable precautions to protect themselves, and creating an environment of confusion and uncertainty.”
“I don’t take any pleasure in that we had to fight that hard just to keep employees safe,” said Sherry Jackson, an AFGE union official and Connecticut-based claims specialist who also complained to OSHA.
“There’s this insinuation that people just want to get out of work. We’re tasked with taking care of the public, but if we’re sick or we’re exposed, there would be nobody left to handle the public’s business,” Jackson said.
Last year, the SSA ended a telework pilot involving about 12,000 employees in operations units, and in December, Democratic senators wrote to SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, criticizing the decision. In January, the SSA announced more teleworking reductions, taking effect in March.
“The problem is now, if they try to implement that (teleworking) across the board, they haven’t really thought it out,” said Karime Masson, an SSA claims representative in Indiana. “The agency doesn’t know how the system is going to react.”
The SSA did not respond to a request for comment on its teleworking policies. One senior SSA official justified the teleworking reductions last year by citing increased wait times, backlogs and workloads.
Masson, 53, said she and her colleagues have been given little information about the coronavirus. She helps people file for retirement, disability and survivor claims, and she often deals with the elderly and others with health issues. Those are the populations at higher risk of serious complications from the coronavirus, according to CDC guidance.
“There’s been no real communication from our upper management,” Masson said. “What we do get is at the last minute, and it’s hard to really trust what they’re telling us.”
The Trump administration faces mounting pressure to give federal workers the option to work from home. Dozens of Democratic senators wrote to President Donald Trump on Monday, urging him to issue an executive order directing agencies to use telework as much as possible. On Sunday evening, the White House issued stronger guidance applying to federal employees in the Washington, D.C., area, but it is not mandatory and excludes the vast majority of federal workers.
The effort to cut telework has also extended to HHS, said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. His organization, which represents about 150,000 employees across the government, called Monday for the Trump administration to close all federal buildings with 50 or more employees.
One sticking point in recent negotiations between NTEU and HHS has been a move by the agency to slash teleworking days, Reardon said in an interview.
“HHS has spent really the last two years cutting back telework, and they’ve really demonstrated very little movement to roll back those cuts,” he said.
Do you have access to information about the federal government’s response to coronavirus that should be public? Email [email protected] or [email protected]a.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.