The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration is urging people to work from home. What about the federal government?

(Damian Dovarganes/AP)

“HUNKER DOWN.” That has been the urgent plea from Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressing the importance of Americans staying home as much as possible to limit the deadly spread of the novel coronavirus. His words — and those of other public health experts — have been taken to heart by state and local officials who have shut schools and businesses. Many of the country’s top companies likewise are encouraging employees to work from home.

Unfortunately, the message has not fully sunk in with the nation’s largest employer: the federal government. Its failure to come up with and communicate a government-wide plan or approach to telework is yet another example of the Trump administration's lagging response to the escalating pandemic.

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“When the Super Bowl was in Atlanta, the entire regional office teleworked for over a week to ease congestion and enhance security. . . . Why will the agency allow telework for the Super Bowl but not when potential lives are on the line?” That query, reported by the Federal News Network, came from a Social Security Administration employee. Similarly, a worker at the National Institutes of Health asked, “How many thousands of federal employees are being asked to endanger themselves and their neighbors. . .?” Their questions embody the fear and frustration of many federal employees over the lack of clear guidance as to whether working from home will put their jobs at risk.

In the days since President Trump’s declaration of a state of national emergency on Friday, confusion has marked the messages from the White House about the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers. At first, the recommendation from the acting budget director was that limited telework should be made available to the elderly, to those who are pregnant and those with health risks. Mounting criticism resulted in Sunday’s guidance from the White House asking agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” to all eligible employees and “use all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees.” But the directive is not mandatory, leaving decisions about teleworking up to each individual agency and resulting in a hodgepodge of policies. “Every agency is scared to death to do anything without getting approval, and they don’t want to be the first,” one senior manager was quoted in a report by The Post’s Lisa Rein, Ian Duncan and Tracy Jan.

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Little wonder that managers are hesitant given how Mr. Trump has worked throughout his tenure to limit remote work by federal employees. When he took office in 2017, more than 40 percent of the federal workforce was eligible for telework, but his administration implemented across-the-board cuts that reduced the numbers of those eligible to telecommute. It is unclear how many employees now even have the capabilities or equipment to work remotely. The pushback against the Obama administration’s encouragement of telework never made sense. But this crisis is illuminating its true folly.

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