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Federal Employees Demand More Telework Capacity, As Personnel Management Head Quits


The head of the U.S. government's internal HR department suddenly quit yesterday at a fraught time for the agency. Like many employers, the federal government has expanded telework to protect employees from getting the coronavirus. But some labor unions say the government should be doing a lot more. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: At the Social Security Administration office in Tulsa, Okla., the first order of business yesterday was a staff meeting. Forty people, four times the number the government recommends should be in one place at one time, crammed into the meeting room to be told their office would be closed to the public but not to employees. Ralph de Jullis works there. He's also an official with the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents some Social Security workers.

RALPH DE JULLIS: Most of our offices are more than 10 people. We don't social distance because we can't. We're in cubicles. So we're all exposing each other. It would be safer for us to be at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus because if we're here and we all get sick, we're not going to be able to do the work.

NAYLOR: The Social Security Administration announced late Monday it was closing field offices, where people can apply for benefits or get their first Social Security card, out of concern about spreading the virus. People can still call those offices for help. Some employees can telework, de Jullis says, including workers with children who are now home from school, but others can't.

DE JULLIS: But the people who are over 60 were told, oh, yeah, we don't agree with the CDC guidance. Unless you have one of the other serious medical conditions, you can't telework. They're just making it up as they go along.

NAYLOR: Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, is calling on the Trump administration to close all federal offices with more than 50 people. Reardon says the government should also allow federal employees to take special leave, called weather and safety leave, if they're low on paid sick leave.

TONY REARDON: You have employees who don't have a great deal of leave. They don't feel well. And if they are not provided weather and safety leave, they still have to provide for their families. They still have to earn a paycheck. So you know what they do? They go to work, and that really puts all the other employees in their workplace at risk.

NAYLOR: The administration has told agencies to offer maximum telework flexibilities to employees. And in guidance released yesterday, the Office of Management and Budget said agencies should adjust operations and services to minimize face-to-face interactions. Some agencies have told their employees to work from home, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, parts of the State Department, NASA and the EPA. But others have resisted, including the Department of Health and Human Services.

Of course, not all of the nation's 2 million-plus federal employees can work from home. Daniel Kaniewski was the second ranking official at FEMA.

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: It's possible that many of these employees that will be required to telework may not have laptops or a secure way to connect to an agency's network. That's a huge challenge. It's hard to conduct your agency's operations if you don't have the ability to connect to a network or, even more fundamentally, have a laptop or a cellphone from the agency.

NAYLOR: And Kaniewski, now with Marsh & McLennan Advantage, a consulting firm, says it's fantasy to believe that the federal government will be fully functional with a significant portion of its workforce teleworking.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.