The House passed legislation on Wednesday that would outline the public health protocols federal agencies must include in their return to office plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The House approved by voice vote the “Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act,” which was named after a federal employee in Virginia who died of complications from the coronavirus in May. Five Senate Democrats introduced a companion version in the Senate on Wednesday as well. Over the last few months, federal employees who were teleworking during the pandemic have started to return to their workplaces, which has been marred with some confusion and complications in some instances.
“I refuse to sit idly by while more and more of our federal workforce are forced back to office buildings under superficial plans with zero accountability,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, who sponsored the bill. “This legislation is designed to save lives and protect those who serve the American people. We, as members of Congress, have an obligation to protect the federal workforce who keep our country running; who keep our country safe.”
If enacted, the bill would require the heads of all federal agencies to consult with their human capital officers and administrative directors and then publish their reopening plans online at least 30 days before employees return. The plans must address: the personal protective equipment the agency will give to employees; cleaning protocols; social distancing measures; methods to protect employees who work outside of federal buildings; requirements for outside visitors; plans for those at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus; and contingency plans if there is a surge in cases.
No more than six months after the plans are posted, the inspectors general must submit a report to the House Oversight and Reform and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees on how their agencies complied with the requirements.
“Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, federal employees have been hard at work to preserve essential government functions and ensure that the American people can continue to count on their government for vital guidance and assistance when they need it the most,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D -Va. “However, this work should never come at the expense of workers’ lives, as was the case for Chai Suthammanont,” who worked in the kitchen at a day care center on the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia.
The American Federation of Government Employees, National Treasury Employees Union, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, National Federation of Federal Employees, and the Laborers’ International Union of North America endorsed the legislation.
In June, Connolly asked 24 inspectors general offices to develop assessment plans to review their agencies’ reopenings and then provide them to his subcommittee. Then last month, he launched an online tracker to keep tabs on the responses, which federal employee unions welcomed. As of Thursday afternoon, 16 IG offices confirmed they are doing the investigations; seven didn’t commit to the formal reviews Connolly requested, but are working on related oversight initiatives; one is not doing anything at the moment.