Anxiety, anger as State Dept. moves ahead with reopening despite area infection rate

Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have all seen increases in COVID-19.

August 1, 2020, 4:32 PM

According to the latest ABC News analysis of the coronavirus’s spread, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have all seen increases in cases, rates of positivity, and hospitalizations in recent days.

Despite those climbing numbers, the State Department announced this week that it has moved ahead to the second phase of its reopening plan -- sparking anxiety and anger among a workforce comprising many unable or unwilling to return.

The department is just one of several government agencies at which employees and their unions have expressed concern about returning to work too soon and putting them at risk.

According to the department's "Diplomacy Strong" plan, which was launched in May, the second reopening phase is supposed to begin when there is a 14-day downward trend in cases, as well as the availability of public transit, schools or day cares, and open non-essential businesses.

The US Department of State building in Washington on July 22, 2019.
Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images

While some of those conditions have not been met, a State Department spokesperson told ABC News Friday the move to phase two was made by department leadership "using guidance from the White House, CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and local governments combined with objective criteria informed by data and good judgment."

What's most troubling to several employees is that phase two involves 40% to 80% of employees working on-site at facilities in the D.C. area.

But it also says while mandatory telework is "lifted," individual bureaus within the agency "are encouraged to continue telework opportunities whenever possible within mission needs," according to a copy obtained at the time by ABC News.

The department spokesperson would not say whether each office must have a minimum of 40% of its employees back at work, only that phase two "allows up to 80% of Department employees to return."

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But in its statement to ABC News, the State Department indicated there will be some flexibility for individual offices to decide: "Employees who are in vulnerable populations are not required to return to the office. During this phase, telework flexibilities are still encouraged given health, childcare, eldercare, and transportation concerns," it said.

Still, many employees have been left confused about whether their bosses are empowered to decide.

"We hope that the Department reconsiders this decision or, at the very least, ensures that there is no minimum percentage of employees which must report to work," the American Foreign Service Association, the Foreign Service's union, said in a statement Wednesday.

AFSA has urged department leadership to reverse phase two, which employees were notified Monday began that same day.

"While we share our members' eagerness to get back to in-person work, AFSA believes that the criteria set out by the Department -- data, conditions on the ground in specific locations, and employee safety -- have not been met," the union said, adding that it expressed "serious concerns" in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Monday, particularly for parents, since most schools in the area are continuing to teach virtually into the fall.

So far, AFSA has not received a response from the agency, a spokesperson told ABC News. The department spokesperson has not responded to ABC News' follow-up questions.

In addition to AFSA, a group of hundreds of D.C.-based career employees organized a letter to department leaders asking them to continue "maximizing workplace flexibilities" like telework, according to NBC News.

The State Department work force is not alone.

The Environmental Protection Agency's union issued a statement after the EPA announced on July 16 that the third phase of reopening would begin for its employees.

“We are once again reminded that your administration does not serve EPA workers and our mission, but instead will sacrifice workplace safety in the advancement of a political position that EPA must ‘re-open’ offices whatever the reality is of the current COVID-19 pandemic in our country,” wrote the Gary Morton, of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council 238 Environmental Protection Agency chapter, in a letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler on July 20.

Morton said the phase-three guidance caught workers off guard as the union was in negotiations with the agency on what phases one and two would look like.

The push has caught the attention of members of Congress in the Washington area, whose constituents include large numbers of federal employees.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin of Maryland and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia wrote a letter to the acting directors of the Office of Management and Budget and of Personnel Management urging them to reverse these "unsafe actions."

"Reopening too quickly by ending maximum telework threatens to erase the progress made against the virus and endanger the health and safety of federal employees and everyone else in an agency’s region through increased community spread," the four Democratic senators wrote on July 9.

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