DOD stresses telework, social distancing in COVID-19 guidance

coronavirus molecule (creativeneko/


DOD stresses telework, social distancing in COVID-19 guidance

Civilian Defense Department employees are encouraged to telework and take other "social distancing" measures to reduce and prevent coronavirus transmission, according to a personnel memo released March 9.

DOD components are granted limited emergency exception to the telework policy through Dec. 31 and may allow civilians to work remotely, according to the memo from Alexis Lasselle Ross, who is performing the duties of DOD's undersecretary for personnel and readiness.

"Employees must still account for work and non-work hours during his or her tour of duty and take appropriate leave (paid or unpaid) to account for time spent away from normal work-related duties," such as child care, the March 8 memo states.

DOD is also implementing "social distancing" that is limiting in-person contact via telework, teleconferences, and flexible work schedules to curb disease transmissions.

"DOD Components should review their continuity of operation plans. In addition, DOD Components may want to encourage employees eligible to telework but who are not current telework program participants to participate," DOD wrote in the March 8 memo.

Those components must also plan to conduct operations with high absentee rates, the memo said, including cross-training personnel for key functions.

But the leave policy has some limitations as civilian DOD employees can't use emergency leave for child or dependent care if schools or care facilities are closed.

"Employees in these circumstances are not eligible for weather and safety leave," which also applies to disease outbreaks, DOD states in the memo. "DOD Components may authorize telework participants to telework when there are young children or other persons requiring care and supervision in the case of an emergency."

Employees who aren't part of the telework program can use annual leave or other paid time off. Alternatively, supervisors can authorize alternative work schedules for increased flexibility.

Defense entities should contact the Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service with human resources questions about civilian employees. DCPAS is coordinating with DOD's undersecretary for policy and OPM where necessary.

So far, DOD suspects seven people of contracting COVID-19 with another two military active duty personnel who are presumed positive, DOD health and personnel officials told reporters during an off-camera March 9 briefing.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy released a statement March 9 announcing that the head of Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, and several staff were likely exposed to COVID-19 during a recent conference.

"Out of an abundance of caution and following recommended protocols, he and others potentially affected are self-monitoring and working remotely to fulfill their command duties and responsibilities," McCarthy said in the statement, adding that public health officials and other at-risk U.S. personnel were notified.

The notification comes after a U.S. Marine stationed in Fort Belvoir, Va. tested positive and is being treated for COVID-19 after returning from an overseas business trip, the Defense Department announced March 7.

Travel, telework at civilian agencies

The president of the National Treasury Employees Union said that the IRS would suspend all non-critical travel for 30 days as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the U.S.

In a statement to FCW, NTEU National President Tony Reardon said he had met with IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig on March 9 to talk about the agency's plans to ensure employees' health and safety.

"We support [the] decision [to end all non-mission critical travel]. To the extent this impacts employee training programs, we urged IRS to explore alternatives such as web-based training programs," Reardon said.

"We continue to urge the agency to broaden its telework program…[and] waive requirements that frequent teleworkers report to their offices twice each pay period, and expand the number of teleworking days for those who are telework eligible. This would be especially critical in workplaces where local schools have closed."

NTEU represents 70,000 IRS workers. A request for comment to IRS went unanswered as of press time.

NTEU has also published a website for individual workers to look up their agency's pandemic plans and called upon the IRS to provide its service center workers with sanitary supplies to prevent contamination when they cannot telework during tax season.

The Office of Personnel Management offered guidance for agencies to prepare their workers to telecommute as much as possible to prevent potential exposure to the coronavirus, but some unions have reported that agency officials continue to limit employees' ability to work remotely.

On March 2, the President of American Federation of Government Employees Local 215 amended a Jan. 29 grievance he had filed against the Social Security Administration's Office of Hearing Operations, citing the agency's lack of response to the union's concerns for both employees' collective bargaining rights and increased risk to coronavirus exposure by reducing employees' ability to telework.

"OPM issued guidance regarding agency preparation and responses to the Novel Coronavirus. Among those directions is, 'Agencies should maximize their telework capacity by entering into telework agreements with as many telework-eligible employees as possible,'" AFGE Local 215 President Richard Couture wrote in an email to an SSA labor-management relations official that FCW obtained.

"Management fails its employees and the public by not acting. The Agency is breaching [its duty to protect employees' health] by failing to act in accordance with OPM and CDC direction."

In November, the SSA announced it would end its telework pilot program. Employees' ability to telework has been a cornerstone of ongoing bargaining disputes between unions like AFGE and the federal agencies whose workers they represent.

Congress affected

As of March 9, several lawmakers announced they were self-quarantining themselves, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who was recently on board Air Force One with President Donald Trump, and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who was also in contact with the president. Several Republican lawmakers came into contact with an infected individual at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference in National Harbor near Washington, D.C.

Gaetz has reportedly been tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting results.

Mark Meadows, who is leaving the House of Representatives to become White House chief of staff also announced he was in contact with an infected individual and is in self-imposed quarantine, reportedly through Wednesday.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters during a March 9 White House briefing he had not been tested for COVID-19 and that he didn't know whether Trump had been.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Wash.) plans to reintroduce a bill that would allow members of Congress to conduct some business, including attending hearings and voting on measures under suspension of the rules, via teleconference or some other remote measure, according to an Axios report. Swalwell and others have backed similar measures in every session of Congress going back at least to 2013.

This article first appeared on FCW, a partner site of Defense Systems. 

About the Authors

Lauren C. Williams is a staff writer at FCW covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.

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