Across the country, people have spent the past six months weighing their obligations to others against the risk of infection. In the early days of the pandemic, healthcare workers, grocery store employees and take-out food preparers risked face-to-face interaction with thousands of people to keep the country healthy and fed. Most others reduced face-to-face interaction to minimize spread and risk of death. As the risks of infection become clearer and the immediate economic impact of closure continues to mount, more and more employees are returning to work across the country.
The reality is much the same at local, state and federal agencies. After first emptying out offices to the greatest extent possible, a growing number of agencies are requesting some employees to return to the office to complete work that has become urgent since the start of the pandemic. And while these employees are receiving better safety guidance than the healthcare and food sales employees who worked through the pandemic, any return to the office implies some risk of infection.
Is that risk justified? In at least a few cases, oversight agencies have indicated that the risk is higher than it should be. The General Services Agency’s Inspector General has urged that agency to provide better cleaning guidelines and do a better job of letting co-workers know that they worked near someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) division serves as the landlord for federal agency buildings, and the recommendation is directed toward that division. The IG sampled seven buildings and found that, in two of them, it took the PBS more than seven days after they learned of a positive COVID test to notify building occupants of COVID-19 exposure. They are supposed to provide such notice within 24 hours.
The GSA also hires and manages cleaning contractors for buildings it owns, but did not update the contractor oversight plans to ensure they are cleaning the buildings in accordance with the updated standards required to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
One group of public employees who did work throughout the pandemic was correctional officers – and the Los Angeles county IG has found that weak safety rules led to Coronavirus spread in prisons. Among problems listed were faulty thermometers, vague testing guidelines and little staff training. Nine correctional staff members have died from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic and 54 inmates have died.
The Social Security Administration is also beginning to request employee volunteers to begin working on-site at regional offices. In some cases, employees may be recalled if there are too few volunteers to complete the required on-site duties. While most workers will continue to work remotely for some time, the union representing SSA employees is concerned because the first agency-wide re-entry plan was released only two weeks ago. Prior to the virus, regional offices had employees and members of the public waiting for assistance sitting in close quarters. The Social Security Administration’s Inspector General has not publicly raised concerns around the agency’s re-entry plans, however.
Safety rules will continue to be adjusted at all agencies based on a better understanding of how the virus spreads and the rate of infection in different areas. The longer agencies can wait before a major office re-entry, however, the safer employees are likely to be when they finally do return to the office.
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