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Biden administration issues first government-wide guidance about how to test federal employees for coronavirus

The guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leaves room for agencies to adopt different practices, depending on their workforce. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

The Biden administration has set the first government-wide standards for testing federal employees for the coronavirus at the workplace, telling agencies to be transparent about how the process will work and what might be done with the results.

Guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month authorizes agencies to implement testing both to screen employees and diagnose possible infections among those who have symptoms consistent with covid-19, as well as to identify those who may have been exposed to the virus.

The guidance leaves room for agencies to adopt different practices, telling them to apply the standards “according to the situation in their workplace or workforce” and consider factors such as whether an employee has been fully vaccinated.

The guidance says that “workplace-based testing should not be conducted without the employee’s consent.” But it also states that as an employer, the government has the authority to order tests in the name of protecting its employees and can impose undefined consequences on those who refuse to be tested.

“Guidance for how federal agencies should provide COVID-19 testing for employees is long overdue,” National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said in an emailed statement. “Even as vaccination rates increase, testing will remain a component of managing the spread of coronavirus and federal agencies should have plans in place.”

“It is widely expected that federal agencies with maximum telework in place may recall workers when the pandemic eases,” he said. “This guidance gives those agencies the direction on testing that has been missing and time to prepare plans for their particular workforces.”

Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, federal employees in front-line occupations such as law enforcement and medical care generally have remained at their regular work sites, while others have been working mainly or fully from home. The government has not reported how many people fall into either category, although the number of teleworkers is probably around hundreds of thousands out of the 2.1 million executive branch employees.

While the number of teleworkers remains high, it has been decreasing as some federal employees have begun returning to the workplace.

“While Federal agencies remain in a maximum telework posture, these recommendations provide agencies with the latest science-based testing guidelines for the limited number of employees who have had to come into work during the pandemic because of the nature of their job responsibilities,” an Office of Management and Budget spokesman said in an emailed statement.

The guidance arises from an executive order on safety practices in the federal workplace that President Biden issued on his first day in office. Among other things, it told the CDC to issue central testing standards for the federal workplace, in general. Separate policies already apply in federal health-care facilities and other settings where the risk of transmission is especially high.

A memo carrying out that order set social distancing, mask-wearing and other safety policies for federal buildings while limiting occupancy, with exceptions, to a quarter of capacity until further notice. Agencies were also told to incorporate the CDC guidance, which was finalized last week and publicly posted early this week.

The testing policy addresses how to screen employees to identify possible infections of those without symptoms and without a known or suspected exposure to the virus, as well as how to use diagnostic testing when an employee has symptoms consistent with covid-19 or has had a known or suspected exposure.

In both cases, employees are to receive “clear information” including the type and purpose of the test, how it will be performed, who will receive the results, how the results may be used “and any consequences for declining to be tested.”

It notes that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined that mandatory testing for the coronavirus “is permissible as a condition to enter the workplace because an employee with the virus will ‘pose a direct threat to the health of others.’ ”

That consideration meets an Americans With Disabilities Act requirement that when an employer imposes any mandatory testing of employees, it must be “job related and consistent with business necessity,” it says.

Agencies “should discuss further with employees who do not consent to testing and consider providing alternatives as feasible and appropriate, such as reassignment to tasks that can be performed via telework,” it says.

The guidance does not discuss possible disciplinary actions if an employee refuses to be tested and cannot work remotely.

Situations in which agencies may consider screening testing include when employees are in close contact with each other or with the public, remote settings where medical evaluation or treatment may be delayed, and “where there is a high likelihood of impacting mission critical activities,” the guidance says.

In deciding how often to conduct such tests, it adds, agencies should consider how many employees tested positive previously, the level of community transmission and “relevant experience with outbreaks at the workplace.”

Regarding diagnostic testing, it says that employees with possible covid-19 symptoms are to be “immediately separated from other employees, customers, and visitors, and sent home or to a health care facility, depending on how severe their symptoms are” and should isolate while awaiting the test results, it says.

For unvaccinated people who have a known or suspected exposure but who show no symptoms, testing may be used to shorten the CDC-recommended 14-day quarantine, it says. Those who are fully vaccinated “are not required to quarantine or be tested if they are exposed, if they show no symptoms.”

If an exposure occurs outside the workplace, agencies may cover the cost of testing, but they must cover it if the exposure happened at work, it adds. Agencies further must cover the cost of any testing required for employees on official travel.

The guidance also covers leave policies, record-keeping and reporting requirements, among other topics.