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Coronavirus variant imperils federal government’s back-to-the-office plans

A security member walks outside the Department of Housing and Urban Development on May 17 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The Biden administration’s effort to bring much of the massive federal workforce back to the office this fall is facing a new disruption just as the government was firming up detailed plans to move past the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of agencies submitted their return-to-office plans to the White House budget office to meet last Monday’s deadline, laying out how they would begin to phase out remote work for hundreds of thousands of employees after Labor Day, with a full return to federal offices planned by the end of the year. Detailed strategies for office cleaning, coronavirus testing, staggered work schedules and repositioned desks for social distancing were included, along with which jobs will be eligible for continued full- and part-time telework.

But with the more contagious delta variant surging and sending tens of thousands of unvaccinated people to hospitals across the nation, trepidation over the reentry plans has risen among some Biden administration officials, people aware of the planning say — and unions that represent federal employees are voicing concerns about their members’ safety through collective bargaining. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal deliberations.

The delta variant has become the dominant strain of coronavirus in the United States, resulting in a rise in infections and hospitalizations. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The Social Security Administration, the focus of increasing pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill to reopen, has not submitted its reentry plans to the White House budget office. Acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, named less than two weeks ago, told agency employees in a memo early Wednesday that “we have been given a little more time to finalize our plan so that I can ensure it is informed by our employees and stakeholders.”

Kijakazi, who was appointed to the acting role after President Biden fired Trump administration holdover Andrew Saul, did not give a more definitive explanation for the delay, which is likely to inflame tensions with Republicans.

The Biden administration has not said publicly how a persistent surge in cases would affect plans to return the government to normal operations for the first time since March 2020, particularly in areas of the country hit hardest by the variant. It’s also unclear at what point federal agency leaders may determine that rising virus cases would make it unsafe for federal employees to stay in the office.

But the president sees defeating the coronavirus as critical to his presidency, and any return to shutdowns or other restrictions would probably represent a political setback. Biden declared the country’s “independence” from the coronavirus on the Fourth of July, and the White House has relentlessly played up the progress against the pandemic and the revival of the economy.

“Agencies are working through reentry plans, but we don’t have anything new to share at this time,” said deputy White House press secretary Chris Meagher. “We will continue to follow the science and listen to doctors and adhere to CDC guidelines.”

The surge in new coronavirus cases that has plowed through unvaccinated sections of the nation earned high-profile notice in Washington this week. On Capitol Hill, several vaccinated congressional staff members, including an aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a member of Congress, tested positive for the new virus variant. A vaccinated White House official also tested positive this week. The in-house congressional physician warned in a memo to lawmakers and their staffs on Tuesday that the delta variant “represents a dire health risk to unvaccinated individuals” and is “endangering many regions of the United States where vaccination rates are low.” The physician urged those who are vaccinated to consider a return to wearing masks in close quarters.

The fresh reminders of danger led even Republicans, whose voters are most strongly opposed to vaccination, to increasingly call for inoculations.

The White House is under intense pressure from disparate sides of the debate over reopening. Unions that represent the majority of the federal bureaucracy of 2.1 million workers — and are a key Democratic constituency — are reluctant to cede full control of workplace decisions to the administration, although they have not disagreed publicly.

Advocates for the disabled, meantime, have pushed for reopening some of the nation’s 1,240 Social Security field offices. Applications for disability benefits have plummeted during the pandemic, as low-income Americans without access to the Internet have been prevented from seeking benefits.

And the administration has been hammered for months by Republican lawmakers over the slow pace of returning federal employees to the workplace. Republicans have charged that closed offices and remote work, particularly at the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, have led to diminished services for the public.

“This might come as a shock to some out-of-touch folks in Washington, but most Americans are back in the workplace, and many have been back for quite some time,” Rep. Jody Hice (Ga.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations, said in an email.

“The federal workforce must return now,” he wrote. “Not by Labor Day. Not by Thanksgiving. Not by 2022. Now. The extended ‘work from home’ vacation for many federal workers is over, and it’s long past time for them to get back to serving the American people and address the massive backlogs that resulted from their absence.”

Other Republicans on Capitol Hill, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), stepped up their calls in a letter to agency leaders last week, calling for an immediate reopening of federal offices, in particular those that offer face-to-face services to the public.

“As countless constituents of ours have confirmed, the Federal government’s current service offerings simply cannot match those that were previously being provided in person,” the letter from 15 GOP House members said. “If agency heads are required to bend to the whims of union bosses before reopening offices, as the [administration] appears to be requiring, our constituents, for example, will continue to be required to mail in vital documents . . . to the SSA for an unknown period of time to access their Social Security benefits.”

The administration is also confronting the complexities of what it hopes will be a permanently altered federal workforce that works more remotely than before the pandemic, with a smaller brick-and-mortar footprint. The White House also is determined that agencies balance equity between front-line employees who have worked through the pandemic at great risk and high-level managers who have enjoyed the perks of working in the safety of their homes, according to one Democrat who works closely with the administration on federal employee issues.

About 60 percent of the federal workforce was teleworking at the peak of remote work during the pandemic. That number has slipped some, as employees have formed skeleton crews in Social Security field offices and at the IRS and other agencies.

The government is confronting the same questions as most private employers as it looks for the right balance between serving the public and protecting its employees. While some private companies and health-care systems are requiring their workers to show proof they have been vaccinated before allowing them to return to the office, the Biden administration has decided against requiring inoculations; agencies are not barred from asking whether an employee has been vaccinated, but they cannot compel employees to answer.

That is part of the uncertainty that worries federal employee unions, even as their leaders acknowledge that many of their members, especially in red states far from Washington, also have refused to get vaccinated.

“The delta variant may very well send us back to ground zero,” said Bill Price, executive vice president with Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 70 percent of the Social Security Administration’s workforce of about 60,000.

On a conference call Tuesday, the agency’s union leaders concurred that the administration’s push to reopen, particularly the field offices around the country that provide vital face-to-face services to low-income applicants for disability benefits, “is happening a little prematurely,” Price said.

“We want to serve our claimants who need service in person, but if this [resurgence] becomes dangerous, our posture is to maximize telework,” Price said.

Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency is serving customers even before fully reopening.

“We have been and remain open for business, and we currently provide multiple service delivery options for all Americans,” Hinkle wrote in an email, adding that most Social Security services are available to the public online, by telephone or via in-person appointment for “limited, critical situations.”

The union position is more than just politically important. Changes to working conditions where safety is concerned are subject to labor-management bargaining. At least half the federal workforce belongs to a union, officials estimate. The unions are approaching negotiations over back-to-the-office planning delicately, according to union officials and others close to the Biden team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal conversations. Neither side wants to damage what has been a far more cooperative relationship than the hostile labor-management climate of the Trump years.

“NTEU members are interested and a bit apprehensive about how and when their agencies would like them to return to federal workplaces,” Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents employees at the IRS and dozens of other agencies, said in a statement.

“We are discussing and bargaining these plans with agencies right now. Our main concern is that the health and safety of employees is always the top priority, especially as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues its spread,” he said.

The administration is particularly focused on getting the workforce at the IRS back to the office because the agency, short-staffed before the pandemic, has fallen far behind in processing tax returns. National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins, who oversees an independent staff within the IRS that advocates on behalf of taxpayers, reported in June that 35 million paper and electronic returns were still pending, both categories needing direct attention from employees who cannot take sensitive tax information home but must be in the office to process the work. The backlog represents a fourfold increase from 2019.

AFGE, the largest federal workers union with more than 750,000 members, is already bargaining with multiple agencies that presented draft plans to the White House budget office in June, and pushing to insert language in the plans that makes clear the reentry can be quickly reversed to return employees to remote work if coronavirus cases surge in their part of the country.

“This isn’t a one-way street,” said a senior AFGE official involved in bargaining at multiple agencies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to prevent jeopardizing negotiations. “It’s not just, ‘We’re going back and this is the date and nothing’s going to stop us.’ ”

Jeff Friday, general counsel at the National Federation of Federal Employees, said the union’s approximately 100,000 members at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, the General Services Administration, the Defense Department and other agencies fall into two camps.

“We have those who don’t want to get vaccinated, and those who are vaccinated and don’t want to wear masks to protect those who won’t get the shot,” he said. For that reason, he said, “we’re going to make sure we’re not rushing back to the office when we shouldn’t be.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this report.