“The need for adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) remains a significant concern for frontline and essential workers across the country, including federal employees and contractors, who have not had access to the PPE as well as cleaning and disinfecting supplies they need to do their job safely,” says the letter to the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management. “All federal employees and contractors — like workers across the country — should have everything they need to stay safe on the job.”
While many agencies have declared themselves as in “maximum telework” status, the letter says that term “should generally mean that anyone who is able to telework should be teleworking full time, and agencies should enable telework for as many federal workers and contractor personnel as possible.”
One of the supplemental spending bills already enacted into law contained money for agencies to procure supplies and beef up their telework capacity, the letter notes.
“The main purpose was to have a bipartisan group of senators urge the administration to make better use of their existing authorities to support and protect the federal workforce,” Van Hollen said in a phone interview. “This is an array of different areas where we believe the executive branch needs to be more forward-leaning, they need to do more to use their existing authorities.”
“We think the administration should move forward with hazard pay — that’s one area,” he said. “We also continue to hear that some agencies are not maximizing telework and some concerns that some people will be brought back before putting in arrangements that are safe for the workforce.”
The letter comes nearly two months after the coronavirus pandemic upended normal operations across the government, with unprecedented numbers of federal employees now working remotely while hundreds of thousands more continue to staff public-facing positions.
It also comes as some employees who have been working off-site have started trickling back to their regular workplaces.
The largest number is at the IRS, which last week called for some 10,000 employees to return to perform “mission-critical” work, including digging into paper tax returns and other correspondence that has been building up.
The letter echoes concerns raised by federal employee unions and by top Democrats in the House in a recent letter urging that guarantees of telework and various benefits be written into a potential new coronavirus spending bill.
Separately or jointly, the OPM and OMB have issued some two dozen sets of guidance on various federal workplace issues, including telework, incentive payments for recruiting and retention needs, a “hazardous duty” pay add-on of up to 25 percent for jobs with high risks of exposure, and leave for employees who are in high-risk groups but whose jobs do not allow for telework.
However, the new letter urges further steps, including providing hazardous-duty pay to all employees “in essential, frontline, or public-facing positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) social distancing recommendations.”A federal union recently sued the government to compel more use of that pay.
The letter also says that agencies would benefit from clearer guidelines on paying “weather and safety leave” for high-risk employees who are not eligible for telework. “Agencies should receive clear criteria to make greater use of safety leave, including how to weigh costs and benefits in order to reach a determination” of whether to pay it, the letter says.
It also called on the administration “to provide agencies with guidance to provide flexibility so that employees can adjust their schedules without a reduction in pay to accommodate needs to care for children and family members.”
The letter was signed by 16 Democratic senators, as well as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Angus King (I-Maine).