Yet, even with this newfound affinity for teleworking, about 57 percent of the 2.1 million feds remain ineligible for it, according to the most recent government telework status report, and will continue to report to their official work stations.
What does this mean for the many whose jobs cannot be done from home?
We talked with Ricardo J.A. Pitts-Wiley, a lawyer and partner at the Federal Practice Group in Washington. Using his 14 years of experience representing federal employees, he developed a list of tips for those who must work as normal.
“There is insufficient attention being paid at the federal level to the needs of federal employees who cannot telework,” he said. “There is certainly confusion and ignorance in the workplace about what options may be available to a federal employee that is prevented from showing up at work, but who also cannot telework.”
Pitts-Wiley has these tips for those who are not eligible for telecommuting:
● You may be eligible for weather and safety leave — even if you have no symptoms — because of exposure to the coronavirus.
● If you receive weather and safety leave after being exposed to the coronavirus and later develop symptoms, you should then be approved for sick leave.
● If you exhaust your sick leave, your supervisor can grant up to 240 hours of advanced sick leave if you are symptomatic due to coronavirus exposure or up to 104 hours if you must care for a family member who has symptoms. Advanced sick generally is paid back by default through newly accrued leave.
● If you request three days or more of sick leave because of symptoms following exposure to the coronavirus, you might not need any medical documentation. Employees, however, should confirm with their agency on what constitutes acceptable evidence of absence.
●If you are healthy but seek to voluntarily quarantine because you have been in direct contact with a person exposed to the virus, you can request annual leave, advanced annual leave, other paid time off such as compensatory time, or leave without pay. You may request assignments that would allow you to telecommute temporarily.
●If you are required to work, you might be eligible for hazardous duty pay or, for hourly employees, a similar program called environmental differential pay.
●If you are exposed to the coronavirus while on the job, whether you’re eligible for hazardous duty pay or not, you could still be eligible for workers' compensation.
A Monday morning notice to Labor Department employees in the D.C. region demonstrates the willingness of the Trump administration to encourage and extend telecommuting. “Supervisors should identify opportunities to redesignate staff who are not currently telework-eligible over to telework-eligible status,” said the email to staffers from Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella.
This follows a Thursday memo from Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. It encouraged agencies “to maximize telework flexibilities to eligible workers” in high-risk groups and suggested extending them in response to local conditions such as school closures. Agency officials, the memo said, “are further encouraged to approve leave for safety reasons to employees who are at higher risk … and not telework-eligible.”
In another memo issued Sunday, Vought said “agency heads have the discretion to offer weather and safety leave” to Washington region employees who are not eligible for telework. On Monday, the White House extended that to the 85 percent of feds who work outside the region. On Tuesday, Vought asked agency heads to “maximize telework across the nation,” including making telework mandatory, if needed.
While welcome, these measures fall short of what is needed, according to a statement from National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon. He wants the government to close all federal buildings with at least 50 employees. “The half-measures taken so far are not enough because too many government workers are still working in full or nearly full offices,” Reardon said.
The administration’s missives are notable departures from earlier efforts to restrict teleworking in at least eight agencies since 2018.
After Trump took office, “a lot of agencies pulled back on telework and, bluntly, it didn’t make sense then and it becomes even probably more problematic now,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that studies federal agencies and employees.
Part of the problem now, he added, is teleworking needs “an experienced and capable supervisor group and a set of front-line employees who understand the ability to work in a telework environment” that is different from traditional workplaces.
Trump administration officials have not developed that leadership group.
Instead, “they had a very antediluvian mentality” that said “if I can’t see you, you’re not working,” lamented Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district is home to many federal employees.
“Now we find ourselves flat-footed,” he added, “and trying to catch up.”