A Plan to Reopen Federal Agencies

Published: April 22, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicOMBOPMPolicy and Legislation

OMB and OPM issue a joint memorandum providing a phased approach for agencies to return to normal operations.

Key Takeaways:

  • OMB and OPM provide agencies with a framework for near to mid-term processes to return federal operations to normal from closures that have occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The guidelines mimic the three-phased approach outlined in the national guidelines, Opening Up America Again.
  • Agencies are encouraged to follow new practices, which may require the acquisition of services and products, to help its workforce continue fighting the virus. These include facility screening services, reconfiguration of office spaces, and supplying protective masks to employees.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered much of the federal government’s offices and facilities, sending a majority of its workforce to a mandatory telework schedule. Despite the ongoing pandemic, OMB and OPM issued a joint memorandum on April 20 to guide agencies in reopening operations under specifically outlined circumstances.  

The framework to return federal government operations to normalcy mirrors that of the national guidelines issued last week to states and localities by the administration, Opening Up America Again.

In particular, the joint memo calls for “agencies to take immediate actions to begin adjusting their operating status for a controllable, steady return to normal operations, and align agency operations through the "Gating Period" and the 3-Phase framework in the National guidelines.”

Before moving into a phased reopening process, agencies must meet gating criteria within their geographical areas. That criteria includes, “1) influenza-like illnesses and covid-like cases of illness must trend downward for 14 days; 2) documented COVID-19 cases and prevalence of positive tests must trend downward for 14 days (while not decreasing the overall number of tests); and, 3) local hospitals must have the capacity to treat all patients without crisis care.”

Aligned with the three phases in national guidelines, the memo details a tiered telework process for agencies towards opening office locations. In the first step, agencies should lift mandatory telework and encourage telework whenever possible in conjunction with agency needs. Next, agencies should lift maximum telework to allow employees to resume regular telework agreements. Finally, agencies and employees should return to “Operational Optimization,” with adjustments as needed on a case-by-case basis.  

Agencies must report their decisions to OMB and OPM as they are determined. When applicable, OMB and OPM will help streamline reopening measures across agencies within similar locations, i.e. the Washington DC metropolitan area.

Criteria to Consider

While the memo outlines a streamlined approach for agencies to reopen, the guidelines also acknowledge certain criteria agencies should consider when navigating the reopening process.

Understandably, OMB and OPM call on agencies with customer-facing missions, such as SSA, to prioritize reopening of facilities to increase public access to those services. However, state and regional assessments of office locations should be the starting point in any federal agency decision, including state/regional determinations on local health and public safety conditions. Moreover, agencies must consider other demographical factors such school and daycare closures, and public transportation and parking availability.

The guidelines also advise agencies to approve leave to those employees identified as vulnerable by the CDC and are not telework-eligible. Agencies may also authorize weather and safety leave to employees in conditions that prevent the employee from safely traveling and/or performing work at a particular location.

Moving Forward

Even as the federal government begins to resume regular operations under these approaches, the memo calls on agencies to implement new measures, and underline existing habits, to help employees fight the spread of COVID-19. These include:

  • Screening at facility entrances of workers and visitors, including a set of entry questions, temperature checks and/or visual inspections. The memo authorizes agencies to consider buying such facility screening services, available on the GSA Schedule
  • Ensuring the availability, and purchase capability, of hygiene supplies including, “hand sanitizer, hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper, and disinfectant wipes”
  • Alternating work schedules to pursue increased social distancing within closed-spaced offices
  • Cleaning of facilities, including consistent disinfection of hard surfaces in common areas, particularly following a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19
  • Acquiring facemasks to employees, or approving employee-supplied cloth face coverings
  • Enforcing social distancing practices, including, “closing common spaces, limited gatherings, reconfigured space, prohibiting communal food in workspaces and cafeterias”