'Mission critical' federal workers question reason for going in office
International air travel from the United States has all but ceased. But hundreds of front-line workers sit side by side in small cubicles processing passport applications for the State Department, even as health authorities implore Americans to stay home.
The employees have 15 minutes a day to wipe their desks clean with supplies they must bring from home, because there is no government stockpile of disinfectant wipes.
The passport specialists, many earning overtime, are whittling down a backlog that had doubled by January to 1.2 million after the Trump administration froze hiring to 2016 levels, officials say. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered the staff to keep working during the novel coronavirus pandemic to ensure the pileup of applications comes down by the time travel returns to normal and President Donald Trump faces reelection, an agency official said.
They're not the only ones. Thousands of federal employees and contractors are still badging in to offices they worry have turned into petri dishes - whether they're answering phones for the Internal Revenue Service in a cubicle farm in Covington, Kentucky, or reading intelligence streams in a special facility at the Pentagon where the government keeps classified information.
This large swath of the workforce is keeping many operations afloat during the crisis. They're not on laptops in the safe space of their homes, either because their roles are not telework-ready or their managers are nervous they'll be out of sight. They're not in crucial health and safety roles inspecting meat, caring for veterans, securing prisons or providing security for the president.
Federal officials have said protecting their employees is their highest priority. But the lumbering, decentralized and risk-averse bureaucracy, the country's largest employer, has been slow to act to protect the health of many in its workforce, particularly those outside Washington, according to interviews with 28 employees, managers and contractors. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about their agency's pandemic response.
"Defining what is truly 'mission critical' is a challenge for the agencies," said Daniel Kaniewski, who stepped down in February as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's second-in-command. "Where do you draw the line?"
It may not be possible to know how many of the 2.1 million federal employees and 4 million contractors are still at the office. It's likely to be hundreds of thousands, at least. About 40 percent of federal workers were eligible to telework in 2017, the last year data was available, although before the pandemic, a far smaller number did.
Day by day, the government appears to be inching toward a worst-case, emergency footing that could send more of the workforce home. But now these employees find themselves in limbo, reporting to work even in states and communities that have ordered sheltering in place and fearing for their health.
As they continue to staff Farm Service Agency field offices, parts of Veterans Affairs and ranger stations at national parks, many question whether their roles really are critical right now - or if the Trump administration is more concerned with showing the public that the government is open for business.
"We're dedicated public servants, but there's been no preparation or plan for this," said Melissa McIntosh, an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration, which runs a court system that adjudicates disability income cases.
The agency is waiting until Monday to let its judges shift to telephone hearings at home.
"Our positions are 100 percent portable," said McIntosh, president of the association that represents the 1,300 judges. While Social Security installs software on their laptops and sets up rules for phone hearings, the judges are still issuing rulings inside 163 open hearing offices, although claimants can call in from home.
The administration has no modern precedent to draw from as it determines which roles are "mission critical" for civil servants and the contracting workforce that supports them. The definition shifts each day.
Agencies and contractors have sent conflicting signals on when their staffs will return to the office from telework or paid leave, with dates ranging from April 6 (Agriculture) to May 4 (National Institutes of Health).
The White House budget office, which has ramped up its directives to focus on "critical" operations, referred questions to individual agencies.
Hundreds of federal workers and contractors have contracted covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, and others have self-quarantined after potential infections. It's an older workforce that's particularly vulnerable. As of last March, the most recent data available, about 842,000 full-time federal employees were over 50, and 260,000 were over 60.
The passport specialists can opt out of work if they have underlying health conditions, through an agreement with their union.
The Passport Services Division is issuing emergency passports only in life or death cases. Otherwise, processing applications received before the pandemic is considered "mission critical," a State Department spokesperson said.
Colleagues across the government are asking why they've been designated mission critical, and finding few answers.
"It's not that we're unimportant," said a compliance officer in a West Coast field office of the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates private sector labor disputes. The 1,630-person agency, with 26 field offices, has shortened its hours to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when a skeletal staff is required to come to work to open the mail.
"But we're not paramedics," said the employee. "We're not saving lives. Given what's going on, I just don't think we're essential."
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Many offices waited until this week to send employees home, a week after the administration released its 15-day recommendations on March 16 to close schools, avoid groups of more than 10 and stay home. Leaders in the Washington, District of Columbia, area have told residents to leave home only for essential activities.
Federal government leaders have struggled to strike a balance between protecting their staffs and serving the public. This has led to political sensitivities. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt at first left it to national park superintendents to decide whether to stay open or close. But that quickly changed, as pressure built to keep parks open as the administration did during last year's government shutdown.
"They're approaching this with the shutdown mind-set, even though a pandemic is completely different," said one superintendent at a national monument in the Midwest who closed his visitor center but is keeping the monument open.
A Park Service spokesperson said the agency will "evaluate and reassess operations on a park-by-park basis."
The government is hampered by aging technology, an aversion to telework among some Trump political appointees, and a reliance on paper-based systems in many offices.
"The logistics of this are hard," said Chris Lu, who oversaw Cabinet Affairs for the Obama White House. "Even if you send people home, do they have the technology to do all of these jobs? The government is not yet built to telework."
Health and Human Services and the Veterans Health Administration, with front-line medical staffs responding directly to the pandemic, have restricted many others from working from home.
Richard Stone, the VA health system's executive in charge, told his staff in mid-March the agency's strained computer networks had to be saved for vital telehealth services. He later eased his directive and advised employees to telework, but many feared they had been put at unnecessary risk.
Some offices acted relatively early to clear out their buildings. The Department of Education, which rolled back telework under Secretary Betsy DeVos, reinstated it in mid-March. The National Institutes of Health last week restricted staff at labs to one person at a time to maintain experiments.
To reduce the number of workers at government sites, offices that do classified work are telling contractors with assigned desks to relocate to their "home companies." But thinning out density in one place is only creating more of it elsewhere, in offices that aren't set up to handle so many employees.
"There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what functions are 'mission critical' and what are not," said Larry Hanauer, vice president of policy for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a trade association that represents 500,000 contractors.
Contractors won a reprieve in the $2 trillion federal stimulus package signed Friday by the president, which gives agencies flexibility to allow companies to bill the government even if their employees can't keep working.
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The Defense Department, the largest federal agency, issued a memo last week directing some contractors who are considered part of the country's "Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce" to continue to report to work.
The memo does not say how many people fall in that category but lists a broad array of industries that do, including aerospace, software engineering, security staff work, intelligence support and aircraft and weapons mechanics.
Civilian employees had continued to work at installations where recruits are trained until Thursday, when some were sent home, said an Army official at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the service trains infantry soldiers.
The official described friction as commanders expected civilians to continue reporting to work and sought to get them to agree to be "mission essential." Some employees have called in sick in recent days, concerned they may get the virus from asymptomatic teens joining the Army.
At the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California, at least one office is tracking the health of its civilians by requiring updates on a spreadsheet. Each employee is designated as healthy, self-quarantining, exposed to someone who has tested positive for covid-19, or hospitalized with the disease themselves. "DIED FROM COVID (ENTER DATE)," the last column states.
As of Friday morning, 309 service members, 134 civilian employees, 108 family members and 62 contractors across the military had tested positive for the virus. One civilian employee and one Army wife have died, defense officials said.
A defense official who works with the Marines in North Carolina described a lack of uniformity in how other civilians and contractors are treated. A liberal telework policy has been adopted for many employees who can do so, the official said, but others, and some contractors, are still working closely with Marines in tight spaces like flight simulators.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking in a Facebook Live event on Tuesday, said telework will continue for civilians "as long as necessary." He put further restrictions on service members on Wednesday after days of questions about why the agency was allowing commanders to hold large meetings that were not necessary.
Other government offices held large gatherings well after health authorities discouraged them. The National Institute of Standards and Technology gathered dozens of managers in a conference room at its Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters in mid-March, urging them to separate themselves for their health, even as officials told the managers they were tracking "multiple potential cases" of the virus, according to a participant.
A senior official at the Department of Commerce, the institute's parent agency, said no employee has tested positive in the Gaithersburg facility. All Commerce employees, including those at the institute, are now under mandatory telework.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the Agriculture Department's Farm Services Agency held an in-person training session from March 10 to 13.
Late last week, the building was closed for deep cleaning after an employee attending the training tested positive for covid-19, two employees and a union leader said.
An economist who works in the building was furious he'd had lunch with people who might have been infected. "I'm surrounded by tons of people with name tags in the cafeteria who are at a conference, and we weren't supposed to be having conferences," said the economist, who is in his 60s.
An agency spokesperson said the office will remain closed "until we can further assess the situation and properly clean facilities" as directed by health authorities.
Managers say they're sifting through difficult questions every day about who to send home and when.
IRS employees are still answering phones at some call centers. While the tax-filing deadline has been delayed until July 15, the agency is racing to issue refunds and will now take on a mammoth new task, distributing stimulus checks.
"Is answering the phone at the IRS a lifesaving activity?" asked Chad Hooper, a quality control manager who is national president of the agency's Professional Managers Association.
"I don't know," he said. "There's no finality yet."