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Volunteers reopening some federal offices closed in pandemic

The State Department's internal watchdog says the Trump administration's 2017 hiring freeze had devastating effects on the agency. (Source: MGN)
The State Department's internal watchdog says the Trump administration's 2017 hiring freeze had devastating effects on the agency. (Source: MGN)(GRAYDC)
Published: Jun. 9, 2020 at 11:29 AM EDT
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New regional surges in coronavirus cases forced the Environmental Protection Agency to put on hold some of the earliest planned returns of federal employees to their offices, while the first volunteers at a few other federal agencies are quietly going back to their desks.

The Trump administration's guidance, called “Opening up America Again," lays out specific conditions for calling workers back, like 14 straight days of downward-trending cases in an area. But there have been complaints that the administration is moving too quickly.

On Monday, small numbers of Energy Department headquarters staff were returning to offices in Washington, D.C., and Germantown, Tennessee, spokeswoman Jessica Szymanski said.

Less than 4% of the agency’s 7,000 federal and contractor workers were expected to return to work in this first phase of the administration’s plans, Szymanski said. This initial phase allows for voluntary returns of staffers.

The State Department said Monday that it expects to start its in-office restaffing on June 15, also with voluntary returns of employees. The Agriculture Department brought back all political appointees in the Washington area at large on June 1.

Many federal workers, like Americans in general and people around the world, have worked from home since mid- to late March, as the coronavirus spread. Essential federal employees stayed in the field, and the IRS early on become one of the first agencies to ask some workers to come back to offices, to handle taxes and taxpayers.

President Donald Trump earlier publicly urged reopening of some federal sites, including national parks, as a sign of “our significant progress against the invisible enemy” of coronavirus. That was in late April, as U.S. coronavirus deaths were climbing on their way past 100,000.

The EPA had some regional offices on track for the start of the phased return of federal employees. Agency officials put that on abrupt hold for Boston and Dallas regional offices Friday, citing increases in coronavirus infections in those cities, according to agency documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Other regional EPA offices in Seattle, Atlanta, Denver and suburban Kansas City are in line to start mandatory returns of workers in those regions by early July, union officials for the agency’s workers said.

The EPA would not immediately comment on that alleged timeline, or answer questions on when and where it would start bringing back employees — or why it would not make that information public.

EPA spokeswoman Angela Hackell said in an email the reopenings “will take a measured and deliberate approach that ensures our employees’ health and safety.”

A government watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, on Monday accused the agency of moving forward with reopening offices in some cities even though all the set conditions, such as the availability of testing for the coronavirus, hadn’t been met.

EPA inspections have been significantly scaled back in the pandemic, union officials said. The EPA did not immediately respond to a question on that.

A copy of a draft plan for the return of agency field workers to duty, obtained by the AP, recommends all employees wear at least cloth masks. It also directs workers going out in the field to wipe down their vehicles and their hotel rooms – but gives no details on whether the agency or employees will be buying the protective goods.

In Chicago, an EPA union official wrote the agency Monday to ask bosses to put reopening planning on hold. For many federal workers there, reopening would require getting back on subways and buses. noted Nicole Cantello, president of the local American Federation of Government Employees chapter.

“We want to know why the agency’s plan will require EPA workers to take that risk, when by all reports the virus still is ravaging the country and no cure is in sight,” wrote Cantello, who also asked for more information on how the EPA is making its reopening decisions

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Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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