After months of federal agency closures, and a wide expansion of teleworking and other remote work policies crafted in response to the novel coronavirus, the federal government is planning for a phased re-opening.
On April 20, 2020, the Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published Memorandum M-20-23 on “Aligning Federal Agency Operations with the National Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.”
In this Memorandum, OMB provides a framework to be used by federal agencies to develop policies and procedures for re-opening and a return to the federal workplace. Each federal agency must develop its own policies and procedures consistent with the Guidelines for Employers included in the Memorandum, as well as accounting for the agency’s own operational needs and the geographic area in which each agency operates. Like most states that have issued re-opening guidelines, the Memorandum contemplates a gating period in which the agency must see a downward trend in COVID-19 cases before proceeding to a phased re-opening. Agency policies and procedures for a phased re-opening must take into account the following criteria:
(a) Geography. Includes state and regional phasing status and guidance. It also may include, school and day-care closures, mass transit availability, parking availability, facility requirements, and the agency’s mission needs.
(b) Telework. Agencies are given flexibility to develop their own telework policies, and are encouraged to maximize telework flexibilities for high-risk populations, and special populations identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It may also include new working arrangements, such as alternating schedules for in-office and telework.
(c) Personnel. Agencies must develop procedures to follow if an employee or contractor is symptomatic or tests positive for COVID-19. Re-opening policies should consider the needs of vulnerable populations. Policies should also address the employee’s ability to wear face coverings, and whether agencies will provide masks.
(d) Facilities, Service & Operations. Re-opening policies should prioritize public-facing properties and facilities. Facilities that handle classified information should also be prioritized. Policies for facilities must set forth the screening procedure that will be implemented, such as questions to be asked, temperature checks, or other visual inspections. Such policies must also ensure that the agency has adequate hygiene supplies, is following CDC guidelines for cleaning buildings, and implements social distancing procedures to the extent practicable.
(e) Travel Guidelines. Agency policies may reconsider travel limitations currently in place, and adapt them as necessary based on mission needs.
These are merely guidelines; therefore federal contractors will need to familiarize themselves and their employees with the policies and procedures for each of the federal agencies with whom they do business. Agencies are still in the early phases of developing policies and procedures in accordance with the Memorandum, and several agencies have begun to publish their plans, whereas others, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have released solicitations for temperature screening services in anticipation of re-opening. In an effort to make this information more easily accessible for our clients, we are tracking these agency policies and procedures as they are released. We will update this tracker regularly to ensure that the latest policies and procedures are available.
Re-Opening Guidance Summary:
Department of the Interior
- In Phase I, telework will no longer be mandatory, however the agency may continue flexible telework and leave options through the pay period ending May 23, 2020.
- Priority for telework and leave will be given to employees who self-identify as high risk.
- Teleworking employees with childcare or dependent care responsibilities affected by COVID-19 have access to up to 20 hours per pay period of excused absence administrative leave.
Department of Veterans Affairs
- Contemplates a three-phase approach after localities meet the gating criteria. Dates for each phase are not yet set.
- Phase 1 will allow the following agencies to resume certain essential and emergency services: Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, National Cemetery Administration, Board of Veterans’ Appeals VA Staff offices. Telework will continue where possible.
- Phase 2 will expand to allow non-emergent procedures and services. Reopen additional facilities including Fisher Houses, Hoptel Program, VBA regional offices. Telework will continue where appropriate. Up to 50% of Veteran’s Benefit Administration and Board of Veteran’s Appeals will return on a rotational basis, using staggered shift/steams and expanded core hours.
- Phase 3 will allow visitor access to all Veteran’s Healthcare Administration facilities. Additional non-emergent procedures and services will be expanded as resources permit. Resume in-person Board of Veteran’s Appeals hearings but also allow virtual hearings.
- VA will, but has not yet, identified polices for screening, testing, and tracing at VA facilities.
- VA has enhanced cleaning services and closed common areas. It will disseminate additional policies regarding availability of hygiene supplies and face masks. If required, VA will make those face masks available for employees and contractors on site.
Department of Energy
- DOE is currently in Phase 0. Phase 0 includes preparation activities for reopening, such as facility-specific plans for returning in phases. This phase will include sanitizing facilities, adding enhanced screening criteria to determine whether individuals may enter each facility. It will include establishing social distancing protocols, procuring and installing additional hygiene stations. Employees and contractors will receive communication providing the criteria and protocol for the process, to be posted outside each facility. Dates are not yet provided for additional phases.
- Phase 1: Personnel must be approved by the Head of the Departmental Element to return to the workplace, and will include employees in mission-critical positions whose jobs can be better performed onsite than through telework. It will not include self-identified vulnerable populations, or employees who have caregiving responsibilities due to facility closures.
- Phase 2: Personnel must be approved by the Head of the Departmental Element to return to the workplace, and will include employees whose jobs are best performed on site; namely senior leadership, staff supporting PMEFs and MEFs, or other high-priority senior-level program staff. It will not include self-identified vulnerable populations, or employees who have caregiving responsibilities due to facility closures.
- Phase 3: All personnel will resume their pre-COVID-19 work schedules and telework agreements as deemed appropriate by their supervisor. Requests for special accommodations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
- Guidance for face coverings will be detailed in individual site plans.
- Phase 1 contemplates alternating teams with up to 40% of the workforce at one time. Mandatory telework will be lifted, but strongly encouraged. Social distancing will be enforced and groups of larger than 10 will be prohibited. Cloth face coverings should be worn, but are not mandated. Employees will be encouraged to take their temperature daily. This can occur at home when state and local stay-at-home orders are lifted or modified and essential businesses are open. Other indicators are that transportation is available, the facility meets CDC disinfection guidelines, offices allow for social distancing, and there is an availability of food, medicine, and sanitation supplies.
- Phase 2 contemplates an option for alternating teams with up to 80% of the workforce at one time. Bureaus are encouraged to continue telework where possible. Distancing will continue, with an option to wear face masks, and daily temperature monitoring. This can occur when non-essential business can open, and when schools, day care and elder care are available.
- Phase 3 contemplates a return to work greater than 80% of workforce. Cautious resumption of normal flow and seating, and socializing may resume in larger groups. Cautious resumption of normal travel patterns may happen when public places opened, large events permitted, and restrictions on domestic travel lifted.
- Additional conditions apply to overseas facilities.
Internal Revenue Service
- Called back mission-essential personnel.
- Personnel required to wear own face covering in all public places, including walkways, elevators, staircases, bathrooms, cafeteria, entering and leaving facility.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Target Date to Reopen Offices.
- On April 24, USCIS announced that offices temporarily suspended will begin to reopen on June 4 unless the public closures are extended further to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
- Employees in these offices are continuing to perform mission-essential services that do not require face-to-face contact with the public while the offices are closed.
Department of Defense (NCR and Pentagon)
- The Pentagon Reservation and DoD offices and facilities in the National Capital Region remain open and operational, but with restricted access and enhanced health protection measures being taken.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Phase 1: USDA facilities are allowed to reopen, but telework should be widely practiced. Facilities should consider the number and on-site positioning of employees and contractors, including availability of hygiene and PPE products. Common areas will remain closed. Agency may stagger schedules.
- Phase 2: Agency will lift maximum telework policy. Additional employees and contractors may be on site if they have a practical and operational need. Common areas remain closed. Food service may reopen.
- Phase 3: Facilities can reopen with up to 100% of employees and contractors returning. Telework may be permitted for certain employees and contractors that can perform mission needs from home. Common areas will reopen if social distancing can be ensured.
- In order to move between phases, the facility must pass 14 consecutive days with no new COVID-19 cases onsite.
- Facilities may also consider capacity of local public transportation, status of public schools, and day care where applicable before moving between phases.
- Agency plans to provide masks for all three phases.
 “Re-opening” in this client alert refers to the re-opening of federal facilities allowing a return to the federal workplace.