The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal workers are returning to the office. Some members of Congress say they shouldn’t be.

A security guard checks vehicles for identification in May outside an IRS office in Florence, Ky. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)

With the number of coronavirus cases increasing across much of the country, leading members of Congress on civil service issues are challenging orders by federal agencies for teleworking federal employees to return to their regular worksites.

“I think we have to press the pause button immediately,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee, said in an interview. “There is no data that could make one comfortable that it is safe to return fully to work and to the status quo. In fact, all of the data suggest the opposite.”

Senators representing Maryland and Virginia sent a letter Thursday to the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management warning against premature reopenings that could lead to new coronavirus cases.

“Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread,” says the letter, signed by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).

Van Hollen, who took the lead in sending the letter, said in an interview, “It’s grossly irresponsible to bring back too many federal employees to the offices at this point of time.”

Many federal employees working remotely fear their workplaces have not been prepared to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and say they are safer working from home. The Trump administration, which has let agencies decide when and how their workforces would return to the office, says workers can safely return with proper precautions.

About 85 percent of the 2.1 million federal employees work outside of the D.C. metro area. The number of new coronavirus cases reported in a single day in the United States surpassed 60,000 for the first time on Wednesday and approached that number on Thursday. The number of new daily cases in the District has been more stable.

As the backlogged IRS struggles to open mail and answer the phone, taxpayers face long delays

Van Hollen and Connolly said Congress has several ways to block the return of federal workers to the office, including through a new virus response bill, the annual defense budget and bills to fund the government past the end of the current budget year, Sept. 30. However, Van Hollen added, that “legislation will take time to be put in place, but these decisions are being made right now.”

Since mid-March, federal employees have been divided into three general groups: those still working at their regular sites, those teleworking, and those on paid leave because their worksites are closed but their jobs do not allow for telework — what the government calls “weather and safety” leave.

The government has not produced figures on how many are in each category. In some agencies, such as those in law enforcement and the Department of Veterans Affairs, high percentages have remained at their regular sites, and there are relatively few to be called back in. At some other agencies, though, as many as 90 percent have teleworked, the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s central personnel agency, said in a statement.

There also has been no official accounting of the number of employees who have returned from leave or telework. But the pace picked up in May and June as many states and localities eased restrictions — and has continued to rise even as several have reimposed some limits.

“Now as state and local officials are moving through their phased reopening, we are working with agencies to safely return to normal federal operations and full operational status by following all appropriate safety guidelines and recommendations,” OPM said.

Agency policies address a range of issues, including screening, personal protective equipment, social distancing, cleaning and accommodations for employees in high-risk groups. Also, OPM has encouraged agencies to use flexible work scheduling to reduce the number of employees present.

On a nationwide basis, the Internal Revenue Service has been among the leading agencies, first asking in April for volunteers and then in June ordering two recalls of about 10,0000 employees each to facilities scattered across the country. Many of them had been on paid leave.

IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig said at a Senate hearing last week that the agency soon will be back to nearly full working capacity but added, “We have had more than 50,000 employees teleworking and don’t anticipate significant changes in the foreseeable future.” The IRS has about 80,000 employees.

Locally, a notably large recall involves the Pentagon and associated buildings — what the Defense Department calls the “Pentagon reservation.” That encompasses some 25,000 workers — about 80 percent of whom initially were put on telework or paid leave status.

The first phase of returns started June 15, with a goal of 60 percent teleworking, and two weeks later the department moved to a second phase, with a goal of 20 percent teleworking.

Many other agencies also have been calling back employees to headquarters and other local buildings. For example, the Energy Department in early May brought back mostly political appointees and other senior officials and then in late June moved to a second, broader phase.

However, even now, only about 20 percent of workers there are “authorized to come back to their building on a full or part-time basis,” the department said in an emailed statement. The department has about 2,800 employees in the District.

The challenge to agency recall practices is just the latest dispute over how the administration has managed the federal workforce during the pandemic.

A bipartisan letter in May urged agencies to allow all telework-eligible employees to work remotely and to pay a hazardous duty allowance to front-line employees, among other steps.

In June, Connolly asked the inspectors general of two dozen major agencies to review how those agencies are deciding to recall employees and whether they are following best safety practices when they do it. On Tuesday, the inspector general’s office at OPM told Connolly it would start such a review there, following a similar announcement from the inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are pressures to bring back more employees, a factor cited in the Metro system’s recent decision to reopen some stations from maintenance work earlier than had been planned to accommodate an increase in commuting by federal employees.

At a June 25 hearing in Connolly’s subcommittee, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) pushed for a faster pace. “Although the federal government is doing some things, the telework, I get that, that’s good, but as far as reentering the economy the way it needs to go, the private sector is leading that,” he said.

Hice’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Jacqueline Simon, policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, though, testified that “there should be no reopening unless and until federal agencies have the full capacity to test, protect, trace, and inform their workforces, and unless and until genuine, objective data on the status of the pandemic shows it has subsided.”

The AFGE and other federal employee unions also cite issues including the availability of personal protective equipment, workplaces that are not designed to allow for social distancing, and health, child-care and other considerations for employees.

Those favoring a slower approach further argue that the government has built up its telework capacity and employees now are more experienced at working remotely.

“I believe that every federal employee who’s eligible to telework should be teleworking right now,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) said in a phone interview. “A lot of my constituents have been successfully teleworking and they don’t understand why there’s such a rush to return.”

Federal agencies are “getting ahead of themselves by calling back employees at this time,” Wexton said. “I don’t know what their thought process is, maybe it’s the optics of normalcy or something like that, but these are not normal times, and we need to make sure the federal workforce is protected.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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