Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke travels to Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas to meet with federal, state and local officials and volunteers carrying out Hurricane Harvey response and recovery efforts Sept. 6, 2017. (Official DHS photo by Jetta Disco)

Former Acting Secretary Elaine Duke Recommends Tighter Return-to-Work Guidelines for DHS

Former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said she would like to see the same public appreciation exhibited toward first responders and medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic extended to employees of DHS “where the American people would realize what a fine workforce it is.”

“For instance, in CBP, Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration, 80 to 90 percent of their workforce is still out there despite the pandemic, carrying out the mission,” Duke told a virtual forum hosted by House Homeland Security Committee Democrats on Friday. “And I think that shows the dedication for public service. So, one of the things, I think, each one of us can do is whether or not we agree with policies or the politics of our country is to realize the dedication of those people.”

The former acting DHS secretary, who now serves on the editorial board of HSToday, said the coronavirus pandemic “is a horrible crisis for our country, but it is an opportunity for us to unite behind our spirit, our commonality.”

“And I commend you for realizing that the people, the nearly 250,000 men and women of DHS, are its heart and soul,” she said. “They’re backed by technology and policy, but those amazing people that continue to serve through this pandemic are the heart and soul of DHS, so thank you for bringing attention to that.”

Duke told lawmakers that the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought to light how important family and mental health is to the DHS workforce.

“I think we need to look at mental health, resilience, and we need to look at career paths and career development for these people that are in entry-level positions like the TSOs,” she said. “I think providing the employees PPE and now making it mandatory for them to have the personal protective equipment, as small as that is, that’s a big step in the right direction.”

Duke urged Congress to “not to be shortsighted” and “look at ways where DHS, with its partnership with the airline industry, can help provide an early return to air travel, cargo, different things like that, and really see how DHS can help be one of the spurs of economic recovery.”

“I think that’s even more important than ever that we’re using the federal contracting program to revitalize our economy,” she said, adding “there’s ways the agencies can work with, through Congress and maybe have some special authorities to really target those either marginal groups or geographic areas that were most heavily hit.”

As far as DHS returning to offices, Duke called guidance from the OMB and OPM “wide and broad” and recommended that DHS make it “a little more narrow” with standards issued by the acting secretary.

“It would be very hard to explain to the workforce how here in the same geographic area doing this same job, that you have a different ability to come back to work as somebody in the building over,” she said. “…I think it’s important for DHS to speak as the department and put some guidelines in place that would allow the right amount of flexibility so that those variance factors like specific mission sets can be used at the appropriate discretion of the operating components.”

Duke noted, “I think there’s more confidence in teleworking now when people have seen that actually work by this crisis. So, I definitely don’t think you see an immediate return to the same density.”

Reopening DHS offices also needs to take into account whether employees will need to rely heavily on public transportation to get to work, such as in the D.C. area. “Do you feel like you can take a taxi now? Do you feel like you can take the Metro now? Because what precautions do they have in place?”

“I think that most of the DHS employees know they are essential workers and they are going to comply with the policy of reopening and that’s why it’s most important to get us right,” Duke said. “…I think making sure they have the right PPE and the right medical availability both mentally and physically is very, very important. We’ve seen a lot of mental strain in our country due to this.”

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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 and SiriusXM.

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