As the government recommends to businesses that some employees should consider working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration is confronting decisions it made to force federal workers to work at the office.
This week, the Social Security Administration, which frequently deals with elderly Americans in its offices around the country, reduced the options for employees to work from home at a time when they may be most vital.
Days after the first confirmed coronavirus death in the US, the second phase of cuts to the telework program at the Social Security Administration went into effect.
The cuts have reduced, or in some cases eliminated, employees’ abilities to work from home despite teleworking being a key request of their labor unions and a recommendation from other government officials to protect the federal workforce from the outbreak.
Teleworking could be especially beneficial for federal employees like those at SSA, some of whom interact frequently with the elderly. White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said on Wednesday that the elderly are among the most vulnerable.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have shown that early implementation of interventions such as teleworking or remote-meeting options in workplaces can reduce the community spread and impact of infectious pathogens like the novel coronavirus.
Guidance the Office of Personnel Management issued this week reiterated the mandate from the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 that telework be included in the continuity of operations plans each federal agency has for situations like this coronavirus outbreak.
However, Michael Cogar, a public affairs specialist for OPM told CNN, “Each agency is responsible for determining when and how to use telework that works best for its mission and workforce.”
In addition to SSA, seven other agencies also reduced their telework policies in the wake of OPM guidelines last summer. Like SSA, the Environmental Protection Agency “has made no changes to its telework policies” and is monitoring the virus, according to a spokesperson for the agency.
The lack of change from federal agencies could be a result of the limited confirmed cases. So far, none are in Washington, DC.
However, a Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington state told all its employees to telework if possible after an employee was found to have visited a Seattle nursing home associated with the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, NASA told CNN that it was making Friday “agencywide telework day” as part of a drill to test its ability to operate in the midst of an outbreak, a story first reported by Politico.
The state of teleworking at SSA
Federal agencies that cut their telework policies recently have, as of Wednesday, not reversed course amid the rising cases of coronavirus.
Nicole Tiggemann from SSA’s press office told CNN that the agency is “working closely with the CDC and remains prepared to deal with contingencies under our continuity of government plans.”
While the cuts look different depending on the office, several Social Security employees told CNN they generally reduce or eliminate employees’ eligibility to work remotely.
Approximately 4,000 Social Security employees around the county had their eligibility to telework reduced on Monday, according to a union official. The same official told CNN that agency leaders announced these cuts to employees in January but they now coincide with the outbreak.
“It’s a deliberate attempt to get employees to quit,” said Joel Smith with American Federation of Government Employees Local 3184, representing Social Security employees from Arizona to New Orleans. Since the changes, some of his members are now driving a commute as long as two or three hours into the office, he said.
AFGE national spokesman Rich Coutore, who represents the body overseeing all locals with Social Security Administration employees, said many employees are no longer eligible for up to three days of telework per week. Some may only work one or two days remotely per pay period, and some are no longer eligible, even though their workload and assignments have not changed.
The telework program at the SSA has been in place for 20 years, Coutore said.
Telework was entirely eliminated for a much larger pool of Social Security employees last fall, SSA employees told CNN.
AFGE Local 2608 president Rafael Arroyo said managers in the Puerto Rico Social Security offices distributed hand sanitizers. But working from home, he said, would give workers flexibility to protect themselves – especially as one of their island neighbors, the Dominican Republic, has reported cases of coronavirus.
Despite the recent changes in teleworking options, Arroyo told CNN, “We still have the infrastructure where we could move to telework more than one day a week.”
No telework, no problem?
The head of the US Border Patrol union told CNN Wednesday that his agency doesn’t have the option of telework.
“Agents recognize we are going to be exposed, but we have to do our job. We have to be on the border, we have to be patrolling the border,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
While federal employees on the border may not have the option of teleworking, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told lawmakers Wednesday afternoon that Transportation Safety Administration and Customs and Border Protection officers have the materials to protect themselves from coronavirus.
“We have protective materials, protective gear for both our TSA officers, as well as CBP officers,” Wolf said. “We have sufficient supplies for them. We provide that today so they have the option of using those materials today. Some are opting to, some are opting not to.”
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify the guidance released by OPM this week regarding telework.