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We already know how to prevent pandemics
President Trump, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, signs a $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to combat the coronavirus outbreak Friday at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This article has been updated.

Federal employees are on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak in many ways, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers to airport screeners and others who come in contact with the public as part of their jobs. But federal offices also are workplaces, with the same types of day-to-day considerations as other workplaces.

The Office of Personnel Management, as the government’s central personnel agency, has issued several sets of guidance on those concerns. That followed criticism by a group of senators and two federal employee unions that prior guidance did not address many issues of concern to employees.

Here are some common questions and answers for federal workers drawn from those instructions about the coronavirus and covid-19, the respiratory disease the virus causes.

Q: Why haven't more federal employees been put on telework?

A: The Trump administration has urged agencies to allow telework in a series of memos using ever-stronger terms. Guidance issued Sunday evening said that all agencies in the Washington, D.C., area are asked to “offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees” and reminded them that they may excuse from work with pay employees not able to telework, in particular those at the highest risk of infection.

The next day, a message sent to agencies through an internal group called the President’s Management Council broadened that guidance to include employees in areas with significant virus outbreaks across the country.

On Tuesday, Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, asked agency heads to “maximize telework across the nation,” including making telework mandatory, if needed.

It’s up to each agency to decide which employees who are eligible to telework may do so. Many are keeping large numbers of telework-eligible employees at the office, although several have become more generous with telework due to the closings of schools, and in some cases federal offices.

A group of 26 Senate Democrats on Monday urged President Trump to make such instructions mandatory. “In the absence of a clear order, agencies and managers have been hesitant to take major actions to shift towards telework and we hear from increasingly anxious federal workers in our states on a daily basis,” they wrote.

However, even a much-widened telework program will have its limits. Nearly three-fifths of the 2.1 million executive branch employees are ineligible to telework, mainly because of the public-facing nature of their work or because of security considerations preventing them from working off-site.

Q: How should I decide whether I should call in sick?

A: The OPM has told agencies that employees “who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit [37.8 Celsius] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.”

Agencies must grant sick leave when an illness prevents an employee from performing work.

Q: Must I have medical proof to take sick leave?

A: Normally, “administratively acceptable evidence” of sickness — typically a doctor’s note — is required for sick leave for three days or more. However, an agency “may consider an employee’s self-certification as to the reason for his or her absence as administratively acceptable evidence . . . Supervisors should use their best judgment and follow their agency’s internal practices for granting sick leave. Agencies should also be mindful about the burden and impact of requiring a medical certificate.”

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Q: What happens if I go to work with no symptoms but start feeling symptoms during the day?

A: The same guidance states that “CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.”

Q: What if I'm symptom-free but providing care for a family member who is quarantined?

A: You may request annual leave, advanced annual leave, other paid time off (such as earned compensatory time off or earned credit hours) or leave without pay. If you are covered by a telework agreement, you may request to telework on an ad hoc basis.

If your family member starts showing symptoms of the disease, you may invoke your entitlement to use sick leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Q: What's my status if I'm quarantined?

A: That depends on whether you have been deemed telework-ready — meaning you have been deemed eligible to telework and have an agreement regarding the terms with your agency.

For those not telework-ready, the agency is to authorize “weather and safety leave,” which is paid time off without a reduction of another form of leave.

For telework-ready employees, the home is generally an approved location. Those employees would generally be expected to perform telework at home as long as they are not showing symptoms.

An employee who is diagnosed as being infected, or likely has been infected, with a quarantinable communicable disease such as covid-19 normally would go on sick leave, regardless of whether the employee has been approved for telework.

Q: What happens if I run out of leave?

A: An agency may advance leave at its discretion beyond what an employee has accumulated.

Full-time employees are credited with 13 days of sick leave per year, with no limit on how much can be carried to the next year. Employees accrue 13, 20 or 26 days of annual leave (vacation time) per year, depending on their years of service, with a general limit of carrying no more than 30 days from one year to the next.

The maximum for advanced sick leave is 30 days for an employee who would “jeopardize the health of others by his or her presence on the job” because of exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease; and 13 days for those “providing care for a family member who would jeopardize the health of others by his or her presence in the community” because of exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease.

The maximum for advanced annual leave is the amount you would accrue in the remainder of the leave year.

Advanced leave is paid back over time by deducting the leave an employee otherwise would accrue. Up to 12 weeks of leave without pay also may be available under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Q: My child's school is closed. Can I work from home?

A: Generally, if school is closed but your office is open, you must report to work or take annual leave to be home with your child. Agencies generally bar home-based telework when there are young children or other individuals requiring care and supervision in the home.

However, they may make an exception for emergency situations, allowing employees to telework for part of a day and take leave for the rest. The administration has told agencies to “extend telework flexibilities more broadly to accommodate state and local responses to the outbreak, including, but not limited to, school closures.”

If both the school and your office are closed, the agency is to authorize “weather and safety leave” — excused absence with pay — for employees who cannot telework under agency policy.

Q: What are the considerations regarding travel?

A: “Only mission-critical travel is recommended at this time,” the White House’s Office of Management and Budget told agencies March 14.

They are to consider factors such as whether the purpose is to “perform essential duties related to the protection of life and property,” to inspect systems or equipment that “are integral to security, safety, or proper functioning of the mission,” for “activities essential to national security” and whether the work can be “postponed, canceled, or handled remotely.”

Agencies also are to consider “any health and safety guidance being given” by local health authorities and the CDC, including whether the individual employees fall within CDC definitions of those at higher risk for serious complications if infected, including older people and those with diabetes or heart or lung disease.

“Travel by any Federal employee to or within areas where there is community spread of COVID-19 should only be undertaken when there is an urgent need, such as to protect life and property,” it adds.

This primarily applies to domestic travel since federal workers fell under previous general restrictions on international travel. Certain countries or regions within countries have been designated by the State Department as Level 3 (Reconsider Travel) or Level 4 (Do Not Travel). Employees returning from Level 4 places “are advised to stay at home and monitor their health for 14 days after returning to the U.S.”

Some agencies have imposed their own separate restrictions, including the Defense Department, the largest employer in the executive branch.

Q: Are federal buildings closed to the public?

A: That’s a local decision made by the agency occupying a building, if there’s only one, or by the building’s facility security committee, for those with more than one agency. That has been done in some places where an employee had worked after being exposed to the virus.

In other cases, agencies have been closing offices to the public for at least some services. That includes the Social Security Administration, which on Monday started providing customer service only online or by phone. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is doing the same, for example, and the Labor Department has declared a “spring break” through April 14 in its Job Corps Centers.

In addition, public access has been restricted at some buildings, including the Pentagon.

The National Treasury Employees Union has called on the government to close all buildings with more than 50 employees, following the CDC’s guidance to cancel all gatherings of that size or larger for the next two months.

The Office of Personnel Management advises: “If you are a customer or member of the public planning to visit a Federal building, please confirm building/facility status before visiting. Some agency buildings and locations may have select hours, reduced in-person services, or visitor restrictions in place.”

Q: If my office is closed, do telework-ready employees have to continue working?

A: Generally, yes; telework program participants are ineligible for weather and safety leave during a closure, except in rare circumstances. They must telework for the entire workday, take other leave (paid or unpaid) or other time off, or use a combination of telework and leave or other paid time off.

Q: Are federal employees eligible for extra pay for potential exposure to the coronavirus?

A: White-collar employees may be eligible for a “hazardous duty pay” add-on (25 percent of salary) if the agency determines that the employee “is exposed to a qualifying hazard through the performance of his or her assigned duties and that the hazardous duty has not been taken into account in the classification of the employee’s position.”

Blue-collar employees may be eligible for a similar program for them called “environmental differential pay.”

Q: Are federal employees eligible for workers' compensation due to the coronavirus?

A: Not for exposure alone. The employee must be diagnosed with covid-19 to potentially be afforded coverage under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act program.

Employees would “have the same burden to establish the basic requirements of coverage as other claimants and must submit medical evidence in support of an identifiable injury in the course of their federal employment and any related period of disability,” according to the Labor Department, which runs the FECA program.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid 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.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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.

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