District of Columbia-area lawmakers are urging USDA to "suspend its dangerous and insufficient plans to reopen its offices" until it addresses employees’ safety concerns about COVID-19.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the National Capital Region delegation said it had heard from employees, in particular nearly 400 who work for the Food and Nutrition Service in Northern Virginia, who are worried the department “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.”

"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 Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., who led the Sept. 2 letter.

FNS 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,” she said. “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 National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the FNS employees, had raised concerns about the Phase 3 reopening. NTEU President Tony Reardon said Thursday it was “grateful that Rep. Wexton and her House colleagues from the region are insisting that USDA consult with its own employees and agree to adhere to public health protocols before forcing employees back into the office.”

“USDA has said it will not directly notify employees if someone at work tests positive for covid-19, nor will it provide temperature checks upon entry into the building or on-demand testing for employees,” NTEU said.

The congressional letter questions the need for USDA employees to return to the office.

“A rush to require employees to return to offices in a way that puts them at unnecessary risk seems wholly unneeded,” the lawmakers said. “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."

USDA has agreed to meet with an NTEU representative, according to a report in Government Executive.

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The letter was cosigned by Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va.; Anthony Brown, D-Md.; Gerry Connolly, D-Va.; Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Jamie Raskin, D-Md.; John Sarbanes, D-Md.; and David Trone, D-Md.

Among the concerns raised:

  • “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."
  • "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)."
  • ‘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."

Spokespersons for the Department of Agriculture did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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