The letters also said the office did not do a good enough job directing agencies to take “a generous” position on expanding the availability of working remotely. And the senators’ letter said the office should have assured federal employees and contractors that they would not face “income insecurity” if they contracted covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and remained ill even after they have exhausted their paid sick leave.
“We worry that OPM’s guidance to date does not demonstrate to our nation’s hardworking public servants that the federal government is prioritizing their health, well-being and economic security,” said the senators’ letter, which had Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) as the lead signatory. All of the signers are Democrats.
The office declined to comment on the criticisms made by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal workers and D.C. government employees. In response to the senators’ criticisms, spokesman Anthony Marucci said in a statement that the office has received the senators’ letter and “will respond to congress as necessary.”
The office on Tuesday issued a short guidance document, which provides basic information for when federal employees should stay at home if they believe they might have a coronavirus infection. It says those who have traveled abroad to high-risk areas and developed symptoms should quarantine themselves at home for 14 days before returning to work.
It also tells agencies to prepare to have more employees work remotely and to consider cutting back on travel and tightening controls over visitors in federal buildings.
“Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick,” the memo says.
It also cites a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that employees “who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.”
The guidance does not, however, provide the direct assurances to federal employees for job and economic security that is being sought by the senators and the union.
The union also sent a letter Thursday to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services and Oversight committees, outlining its concerns about the potential impact on workers whose jobs may put them in contact with people infected with coronavirus. The union asked lawmakers to intervene on their behalf with the Trump administration.
“Many federal employees have extensive interaction with the general public as part of their regular duties,” the letter said. “Of particular concern are those who have been or are likely to be called upon to provide services to populations infected with COVID-19 or populations at risk of infections.”
The union cited several examples in which federal workers were placed at risk, including one in which “employees in the Administration for Children and Families who were tasked with providing direct patient care for the quarantined evacuees did not have adequate protective equipment or training.” The administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The union also criticized the Trump administration for quarantining Americans who may have been exposed to the virus overseas at two military bases without “any type of notice or training for the Defense civilian employees working at these installations.”
The letter said union officials received reports from employees that safety protocols and equipment were not made available to Defense Department employees on the bases. They were also not “adequately trained on procedures for minimizing the chance of exposure or infection for themselves or their families.”
Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said the department had issued guidance to its employees, before the quarantines, about ways to reduce the potential threat of the coronavirus. Mitchell said, “CDC managed the quarantine process without direct assistance from DoD personnel. The extent of the DoD contribution to the effort was to make temporary housing available to those travelers.”
Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said those of his 110,000 members in jobs that require serving the public directly have received next to no information about how they would be protected — and if they would continue to work — if the virus spreads.
“We want unequivocal assurances that we will be kept safe, but what we’ve received so far is a lot of mumbo-jumbo,” Erwin said in an interview. “It’s been very thin on details.”
For example, State Department adjudicators who process passport applications have heard nothing from their managers about getting protective equipment, or whether their work could be suspended at some point, Erwin said.
The union also represents Forest Service firefighters, who live and sleep in close quarters during wildfire season and are worried about protecting themselves, Erwin said.
A State Department spokesperson, asked about the passport workers, did not address their situation directly but said in an email: “The Department has issued guidance to our domestic and overseas personnel on health concerns related to the COVID-19 outbreak, travel, and workplace flexibilities, including for employees on ordered or authorized departure.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.