The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs and a dozen other federal offices made the decision Friday to encourage their Seattle-area staffs to go home with laptops to work remotely to avoid the possible spread of the coronavirus, while others were weighing how to proceed, officials said.
The agencies acted after the recommendation of an obscure body called the Seattle Federal Executive Board, which represents the Seattle area’s federal offices.
On Thursday, the board notified the agencies that it was formally recommending they institute a policy of telework or unscheduled vacation following the guidance of local public health authorities. That means that employees with government-issued laptops and signed telework agreements with their agencies would work from home, and others without agreements would go on leave.
“It’s a very fluid situation,” said the executive board’s director, Paul Carlson, who was sitting alone Friday in his office in the federal building in downtown Seattle fielding dozens of calls from colleagues who were weighing the options for their employees.
“We’re simply thinning out the workforce by urging people to telework or take leave,” Carlton said. “I’m getting a barrage of calls. It’s uncharted territory.”
The Seattle area has 22,000 federal employees in 147 offices. The decision to move employees to their homes followed the closure this week of the Department of Homeland Security’s Seattle office after an employee visited a nursing home that has been at the center of the area’s coronavirus cases.
Acting deputy homeland security secretary Ken Cuccinelli tweeted Tuesday that the employee was exhibiting “flu-like symptoms four days after visiting the nursing home” and that the person had shown up to work in the period between the possible exposure and when the individual started feeling sick.
Carlson said some leaders, including those at the National Weather Service and the Secret Service, told him their agency’s mission requires them to keep their staffs at the office.
“They’re all over the map,” Carlson said of the of federal officials he had spoken to. “The Secret Service says they’re trying to telework the best they can.”
The EPA’s decision to put its Seattle staff on remote work was an about-face from its posture Thursday, when several employees who requested to be allowed to work from home to limit their contact with other employees were turned down.
The agency several months ago rolled back what had been a generous telework policy to one day a week, and managers told employees they had to stick to the policy, several employees said. But by Friday things had changed.
Chris Hladick, director of the EPA’s Seattle region, told employees in an email that “until further notice” he was allowing “unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework” and said officials were “reviewing and reducing” nonessential travel in and out of King County.
At VA, the office that processes benefits claims for the Veterans Benefits Administration, not the overall health system, is asking employees to work from home.