Wexton Leads National Capital Region Delegation in Urging USDA to Suspend Rushed and Unsafe Plans to Return Employees to the Office
Washington, September 2, 2020
Washington, DC -- Today, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) led her National Capital Region colleagues in a letter to Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue requesting that the agency put a pause on their rush to return employees to the office without sufficient safety protocols in place or clear guidance as to which employees would be impacted. Wexton and the other Members have heard from USDA employees, including the nearly 400 working at the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) National Office in Northern Virginia, who have expressed concerns over the proposed reopening plan. The letter is cosigned by Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), John Sarbanes (D-MD), and David Trone (D-MD).
"The rush to return USDA workers to the office recklessly puts their health and safety in jeopardy and risks the critical work they’re doing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” said Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. “USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service employees have worked tirelessly to get SNAP benefits and other relief programs out to our families and businesses that have been a lifeline during this crisis, all while safely and effectively working from home. Not only has USDA leadership cited no operational benefit to returning employees to work at this time, the plan they have put forward is severely flawed and does not meet the public health protocols we know are necessary to stop the spread of this virus."
The Members called the plan to reopen offices “wholly unneeded.” USDA employees have earned praise from Secretary Perdue and other high-ranking agency officials for their exemplary work and customer service during the pandemic, including facilitating the expanded flexibility and increased benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Based on the information received by the Members, USDA’s reopening plan falls far short in ensuring the safety of its employees. The agency does not intend to provide temperature checks or on-demand COVID-19 tests, has no plan to notify employees of possible exposure, and has outlined a contact tracing effort that does not meet the standards of CDC’s experts. Moreover, the reopening plan leaves telework accommodations up to an employee and their individual manager. There is no clear guidance in place for high-risk employees age 65 and older, those with high risk family members, employees with unexpected care-giving responsibilities, or those who rely on public transportation to get to the office.
Since the outset of this pandemic, Congresswoman Wexton has pushed for maximum telework flexibility for all federal employees and contractors. In early March, Wexton joined Representatives Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and John Sarbanes (D-MD) in introducing the Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act, legislation which would expand federal telework opportunities.
The full text of the letter can be found here and below:
September 2, 2020
The Honorable Sonny Perdue
Dear Secretary Perdue:
We are writing to express our grave concerns about the USDA’s plans for reopening its offices in the National Capital Region. To date, we have heard from employees, including the nearly 400 employees of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) National Office, who are very concerned that the agency is pursuing a rushed and flawed plan that will require employees to return to their offices without sufficient safety protocols in place and without sufficient certainty being provided to the employees who will be impacted. In light of these concerns and the troubling information that we have received about the agency’s reopening plans to date, we ask that the agency pause its current, dangerous reopening plans and work with employees to reach a clear and science-driven agreement that puts their safety first.
First, based on information we have received, it appears that USDA’s current plans are insufficient to ensure the safety of employees in the workplace, and deviate in key ways from public health protocols and common sense based on what we know about the transmission of the virus. As just one example, it appears that the agency does not plan to directly notify employees if there has been a positive COVID-19 test at their worksite − instead, promising to place information on an intranet site. Additionally, the agency has stated that it will not provide temperature checks at entry or on-demand COVID-19 tests for employees in the office. These approaches are clearly not acceptable given the serious public health risks for this respiratory virus, which can be transmitted easily within enclosed indoor spaces. Additionally, USDA’s plan for the Office of Safety, Security, and Protection (OSSP) to conduct contact tracing for employees who test positive (covering the three days prior to their positive test) appears to both deviate from the CDC’s expert guidance on contact tracing and raise concerns given that it is not clear whether OSSP has the appropriate public health skill set to be charged with this important task. Other logistical issues appear to have simply not been thought through fully, such as how hundreds of employees will be able to enter and exit USDA buildings each day with severely limited elevator capacity (due to social distancing).
Moreover, the agency’s plans appear not to provide sufficient clarity and flexibility to employees with specific concerns. While high-risk employees may seek reasonable accommodations under agency guidance, employees 65 or older, recognized by the CDC as high-risk, are explicitly excluded from such flexibilities by USDA. Additionally, employees who live with high risk family members may be recalled to the office and are being provided with no clear flexibilities (e.g., 100% telework) in Phase 3 of the reopening. Likewise, employees who rely on public transportation to commute to the office (a high risk activity during a pandemic) and employees who have unexpected care-giving responsibilities due to COVID-19 facility closures appear to have no clear options available to them. Indeed, the agency’s guidance does not appear to assure these individuals any flexibilities at all. Rather, much of the agency’s guidance appears to place the responsibility on employees to work with their individual managers to attempt to secure accommodations. This is a public health crisis where we all must work collectively to ensure safety in our workplaces and other public spaces. Accordingly, it is clearly ill-suited to leaving accommodations up to individual managerial discretion. The Federal Government has a responsibility as a model employer to show American businesses how to safely reopen in the face of the ongoing pandemic. The agency’s plans thus far do not live up to that responsibility.
Finally, a rush to require employees to return to offices in a way that puts them at unnecessary risk seems wholly unneeded. As we understand it, the Secretary and high-level agency officials have repeatedly lauded USDA employees for their success in conducting their work and providing exemplary levels of customer service while working remotely since March. Much of that work has centered on implementing programs to assist the American people in this unprecedented time of both economic and public health crisis and is vital to helping people across the country continue to weather this pandemic.
In light of these many concerns, we would ask that the agency suspend its dangerous and insufficient plans to reopen its offices and take the time necessary to develop a safe and sciencebased reopening plan that addresses employee concerns. Such a plan should give certainty to employees and carefully consider all logistical aspects of reopening. Only after such a plan has been developed with employee feedback, should the agency consider moving forward and reopening its offices fully.