U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class William Cronin, information system technician in U.S. Transportation Command’s Command, Control, Communications and Cyber Systems Directorate, cleans a desk after a USTRANSCOM member received their new laptop for official telework at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, April 17, 2020. The directorate issued laptops to the command’s workforce to continue global mission operations while protecting personnel health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Michelle Gigante)

Reopening Federal Agencies Need to Prepare for ‘Second of Third Wave’ of COVID-19: GAO

The Government Accountability Office said federal agencies can take a cue from the Census Bureau when it comes to taking steps to safely and efficiently reopen government workplaces as the coronavirus pandemic has stabilized or decreased in some places yet is surging in others.

The task of weighing continued telework options with pulling staff back into newly sanitized and socially distanced offices affects the health of 2.5 million federal employees and 3.7 million federal contractors.

The commonwealth of Virginia is set to move into phase three of community reopening plans on July 1, while Washington, D.C., is currently in phase two of reopening and all of Maryland just moved into phase two. Virginia saw its last spike of cases per day on June 7 and is now holding steady, while D.C. cases have been declining since May 6 and new Maryland cases have been falling since June 3.

J. Christopher Mihm, managing director for Strategic Issues at GAO, told the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations at a Thursday hearing on plans to reopen government workplaces that offices need to take into consideration local conditions when determining how and when to bring back employees.

Agencies should also plan for continued telework to some degree and take steps that remote work contributes to continuity of operations both during COVID-19 and after the pandemic has finally waned.

“The rapidly escalating challenges from the COVID-19 global outbreak present critical workforce issues for federal agencies to assess and address,” Mihm said in prepared testimony. “Major emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can pose threats to employees’ safety and hazardous conditions may ebb and flow over an extended period. Federal agencies have a responsibility to provide an environment for employees to perform their jobs safely and effectively.”

GAO recently initiated reviews of federal agencies’ use of telework and continuity of operations plans in response to pandemic, and “as part of that work, we plan to assess how agencies incorporate the key considerations and practices we have identified related to pandemic preparedness and telework,” Mihm said. “We also plan to review the successes and challenges agencies experienced managing operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including lessons learned and planned changes to better prepare agencies for the future.”

GAO identified several key issues for agencies to consider when bringing employees back to the workplace, including maintaining ongoing communication with staff about policies and requirements, identifying mission-critical functions and employees and gauging the level of their exposure risk, and making reopening decisions “at the component and facility level in their determinations regarding workforce reentry rather than applying across-the-board decisions based on agencies’ headquarters locations.”

“Agencies should consider making decisions about reentry, including precautions and safeguards agencies take, based on the local prevalence of the pandemic at each site. As agencies consider local conditions for reentry, they should share information and cooperate with other agencies located in the same area,” Mihm said. “These re-entry decisions could change over time as the pandemic progresses, such as if there is a second or third wave of outbreaks.”

Agencies also need to have appropriate protection measures in place, taking into account contacts employees may have with the public and with each other, and stocking proper equipment including face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer with a distribution plan.

To ensure that social distancing guidelines are adhered to well, “agencies may consider maximizing the use of telework” and could also implement “avoiding unnecessary travel, restricting in-person meetings and gatherings, and allowing flexible schedules to reduce the number of employees in the building at the same time.”

“Agencies should also consider workplace reconfiguration (such as building walls or partitions between workstations), office-specific protocols (such as limiting personal contacts among staff), and making decisions about reopening office fitness and childcare centers as part of separate risk-based decision processes,” Mihm’s testimony continued.

When antivirals and vaccines are finally available for COVID-19, GAO stressed that “it will be important for agencies to decide the extent to which these countermeasures will be provided to employees.”

“In cases where countermeasures are going to be provided to employees, agencies should consider actions necessary to procure them, and establish clearly defined, well-documented, and consistently-applied protocols to prioritize and allocate their distribution,” Mihm said.

GAO lifted up the Census Bureau’s phased approach to resuming operations, a challenge as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 and the next day Census forms arrived in Americans’ mailboxes. The Bureau suspended operations and began opening its 248 Area Census Offices (ACO) in phases until all had resumed operations as of June 11.

“Operations resumed in a phased manner not only by office, but also by function,” GAO noted. “As the Bureau resumed operations, it was able to resume operations that required less physical interaction, such as Update Leave, in which field staff deliver questionnaires to homes that might not receive mail delivered to their doors. Operations that require interviewing residents, such as Non-Response Follow Up, were delayed until August.” The Bureau also created a COVID-19 Internal Task Force and has been distributing PPE and cleaning supplies to ACOs with priority for those resuming major field operations.

Moving forward, Mihm’s testimony continued, all agencies should establish and update clear policies and guidance related to telework and major emergencies, and remedy technology barriers that have been cited as obstacles to telework. Performance standards must be met and processes continually evaluated.

“Lessons learned from previous pandemic emergencies, as well as from telework use to ensure continuity of operations, can be helpful as agencies navigate ongoing workforce safety and productivity challenges,” he said. “Consideration of these factors and lessons learned from agencies’ current experiences may better prepare agencies to address and respond to challenges from ongoing and future emergencies.”

Mihm stressed to the committee that not only do employees have to have confidence that “they will be safe in the workplace and they’ll be safe in their interactions with the public,” but “the public has to have confidence that they will be safe in their interactions with government.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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