By Dan Gephart, March 19, 2020

First, it was the guidance from the Office of Personnel Management less than two weeks ago. And then as last week ended, the White House recommended that agencies ensure continuity of operations and keep their employees safe by expanding telework and leave options. We are looking at a new federal workplace reality for, at least, the near future.

Here are some suggestions for managing the workplace, while protecting your employees, in this new reality.

Get over your issues with telework. It’s been 10 years since the Telework Enhancement Act was signed by President Barack Obama. Your agency should have a plan, even if that plan was scaled back over the last couple of years. One of the reasons telework was touted so strongly once upon another Administration is because it’s an agency’s best tool to ensure the continuity of its essential functions.

It’s hard to imagine a situation that aligns itself more with the use of telework. You have seemingly healthy employees who can work, but because of their contact with a person who may be symptomatic, they are quarantined out of the workplace.

Earlier this month, OPM sent out the following guidance:

“For an employee covered by a telework agreement, ad hoc telework arrangements can be used as a flexibility to promote social distancing and can be an alternative to the use of sick leave for exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease for an employee who is asymptomatic or caring for a family member who is asymptomatic. An employee’s request to telework from home while responsible for such a family member may be approved for the length of time the employee is free from care duties and has work to perform to effectively contribute to the agency’s mission.”

Most agencies would agree that telework is not the right option for employees who are taking care of children at home during the workday. And that was the standard practice – until recently. OPM suggested that agencies loosen up their policies to allow employees to telework even if they’re caring for children at home due to school closings.

Once this health crisis is in the rearview mirror, I hope the Administration, OPM and agencies reassess the value of telework and expand programs so they are better prepared for future emergency situations. And it doesn’t hurt that telework will also help agencies recruit and retain employees, increase productivity, reduce government spending, and accommodate some employees with disabilities.

Hold employees accountable for performance and conduct. A telework assignment is not an offer to Netflix and Chill. Remember this: Work is not a place, it’s a thing you do. And now, more than ever, you need employees who are doing their “thing” as best they can.

Follow these best practices as you manage teleworkers:

  • Review your employees’ telework agreements.
  • Communicate your expectations.
  • Model expected behavior, especially if you are also teleworking.
  • Support your employees. Be available to them.
  • Don’t over-monitor.

What about asymptomatic employees who were struggling with performance before telework became an option? If an employee is currently in the middle of demonstration period and is placed on telework, that demonstration period should continue as scheduled, whether there is a week, two weeks, or more left.

However, if an employee isn’t eligible for telework while they are quarantined, then it’s a different story. If the employee is on sick leave or  weather and safety leave, their approved time off cannot be used against them. Re-start the demonstration period when their leave ends and they return to the physical workplace.

Authorize weather and safety leave. Wait up, did I just say weather and safety leave? Are we expecting a late winter Snowmaggedon?

Not at all. OPM and the White House suggest that weather and safety leave be used for those asymptomatic employees who are “subject to movement restrictions” and aren’t a part of the telework program. 

Per OPM: “This determination is based on the significant safety risks for other employees and the general public that would be incurred if such an employee were allowed to travel to and perform work at the employee’s normal worksite.”

There is this disclaimer in OPM’s guidance: “The use of weather and safety leave would not be appropriate in cases of communicable diseases that have not been designated as quarantinable by public health authorities.”

Weather and safety leave isn’t the only option. Review OPM’s guidance for information on the use of sick leave, annual leave, and more. And you’ll be sure to get answers when you join us for Absence, Leave Abuse, and Medical Issues Week June 8-12 in Washington, DC.

Don’t get hung up on sick notes. OPM wisely allows agencies to be liberal with doctor note requirements for sick leave of three days or more requirement. (Quick reminder for future non-COVID-19 days: Agencies may require medical evidence for which sick leave is granted for fewer than three days if it determines the evidence is necessary.)

The government doesn’t want someone who has had contact with the coronavirus to be in the workplace, possibly infecting others. But tests for the virus are hard to come by so far. For that reason, OPM asked agencies to be “mindful about the burden and impact of requiring a medical certificate.”

“An agency may consider an employee’s self-certification as to the reason for his or her absence as administratively acceptable evidence, regardless of the duration of the absence.” [email protected]

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