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Flu Crisis Underscores Need For Updated Telework Policies

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Uncle Sam has never been accused of having a perfect record for things such as vision and forward planning. Remember Hurricane Katrina?

But it turns out he was particularly prescient three years ago, when the Office of Personnel Management issued a guide called "Human Capital Planning for Pandemic Influenza."

"Although the timing cannot be predicted," the 2006 report said, "history and science suggest that we will face one or more pandemics in this century."

We're not in the middle of a pandemic, yet, but the Department of Health and Human Services has declared a national public health emergency because of the swine flu outbreak. It "has significant potential to affect national security," HHS said Sunday.

And who is central to national security? Federal employees.

"People accomplish the mission of Federal agencies, and a potential pandemic influenza outbreak may compromise the ability of Federal agencies to accomplish their mission," says the guide issued by Linda M. Springer, OPM director at the time.

Put simply, the mission of the federal government could suffer because federal workers might not go to the office if they, or people dependent on them, are ill.

Or as Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes telecommuting, asks: "If Uncle Sam calls in sick, who will tend to America in a time of an emergency?"

Part of the answer: federal workers at home. You don't always have to go to work to be at work. This swine flu outbreak reminds managers that they need to make sure their telework policies are up-to-date and well-tested.

OPM reported last year that 60 percent of federal agencies have integrated telework into "continuity of operations" emergency planning, although just 7.6 percent of those employees eligible to telecommute did so in 2007.

The key issue, Auten says, is whether agencies have tested telework plans.

John Berry, the new OPM director, will push for greater federal telework participation at a Capitol Hill briefing this morning, where he's expected to announce a government-wide telework policy.

As my colleague Ed O'Keefe reported online in the Federal Eye, Berry issued new guidance Sunday related to federal workers and the flu outbreak. His memo told agency and department heads that they must achieve two goals: protect the public and the federal workforce and ensure the continuity of operations.

Berry's memo said officials, particularly in areas affected by swine flu, should be prepared for the "potential for absenteeism of Federal employees or contractors due to illness and the ability to care for sick family members or for children if schools/day care centers should close. Based on our pandemic influenza work, we know that in the most extreme circumstance, we could encounter fear of going to work, need for social distancing, and disruption of agency operations."

Meanwhile, one of the unions working to organize airport security screeners has complained that transportation security officers are working without proper safeguards against swine flu.

The American Federation of Government Employees said some transportation security officers' requests for protective gear have been denied. "TSOs have been told that they cannot wear respirators because doing so would alarm the public," AFGE President John Gage said in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.

Among other things, he wants the agency to provide officers with respirators, gloves, disinfectant and hand sanitizer, and allow those who contract the disease to take administrative leave rather than sick time.

Berry's memo to federal agencies can be found here: http://www.chcoc.gov/Transmittals/TransmittalDetails.aspx?TransmittalId=2227.

The 2006 OPM report on planning for a pandemic can be found here: http://www.opm.gov/pandemic/OPM-Pandemic_AllIssuances.pdf.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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