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Lack of federal telework transparency concerns DC-area lawmakers

Director of OPM departed amid the crisis

Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin is among those with concerns about the lack of “clear direction on how federal workers can telecommute.”
Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin is among those with concerns about the lack of “clear direction on how federal workers can telecommute.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers from around the nation’s capital are continuing to press federal departments and agencies to expand telework during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of Congress also want continuity of operations plans more publicly accessible.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has featured inconsistent decision-making by the federal government about the use of telework, even as the Office of Personnel Management has said the government is open with “maximum telework flexibility” for eligible employees.

“With this administration, everything has been a challenge in relation to the federal workforce,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin told CQ Roll Call. “So many things this administration has done have been counterproductive.”

The Maryland Democrat said the lack of clear direction from the top — likely exacerbated by the sudden departure of OPM Director Dale Cabaniss earlier this week — shows the risks of not paying attention to the needs of the federal workforce.

“Here we start now with the coronavirus, and where we’re urging employers of groups to make sure that we have no large [number of] people present in any one place, and we can’t get the federal government to be the leader on telecommuting, which is something that should have been in the plans for an emergency plan,” Cardin said Wednesday night. “To this date, there’s still not clear direction on how federal workers can telecommute.”

“In some agencies, federal workers are just not coming in. … In others, it’s unclear whether they can use leave. It’s unclear whether they can work from their home. There hasn’t been that common direction,” Cardin added. “This should have been done a long, long time ago. We’ve been urging telecommuting as a matter of efficiency well before the coronavirus.”

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Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, on Thursday raised particular concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration not mandating telework for nonessential personnel.

“Air traffic controllers and their support staff are vital to the safety and security of our airspace and their health and safety should not be jeopardized as is currently being done,” Wexton wrote in a Thursday letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson. “I request that you take urgent action to protect the FAA workforce by mandating telework for all non-essential employees to limit the number of staff who come in contact with each other as much as possible.”

On Monday, 27 members of the Senate Democratic Conference wrote to President Donald Trump seeking an immediate order to federal departments that they maximize telework.

“The Office of Management and Budget issued guidance for agencies to increase telework flexibility in the National Capital Region, but your order should be a clear direction — rather than general guidance — and it should be worldwide in scope. State and local governments have been far more proactive than the federal Executive Branch in making arrangements for their employees to telework where possible. We have maximized teleworking in our Senate Offices,” wrote the Democrats, led by Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen. “You should order Executive agencies to do the same. We must lead by example.”

Acting OMB Director Russell Vought issued a memorandum along those lines Tuesday, but it did not come from the president himself.

“Within 48 hours of the issuance of this Memorandum, all agencies must review, modify, and begin implementing risk-based policies and procedures based on CDC guidance and legal advice, as necessary to safeguard the health and safety of Federal workplaces to restrict the transmission of COVID-19,” Vought’s memo read.

Eight senators, all Democrats, asked Vought and acting OPM Director Michael Rigas on Thursday to direct Trump administration agencies to make continuity of operations plans publicly accessible.

Sen. Mark Warner is leading the latest letter, with the backing of fellow Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, the Maryland senators and colleagues from elsewhere in the country.

“As the federal government continues to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, we request that you require departments and agencies to post their continuity of operation (COOP) plans online in an accessible format and central location, unless there are legitimate intelligence or national security reasons not to do so,” the senators wrote. “Making these plans transparent and readily available is key to ensuring that our constituents understand what services are continuing in the midst of the uncertainty and disruption caused by COVID-19.”

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