Making Sense of OPM’s Coronavirus Guidance

[Update: The Office of Management and Budget Acting Director released a March 12 memo encouraging agencies to expand telework flexibilities. The story below was originally posted March 10.] 

As discussions about the coronavirus, social distancing and quarantine telework swirl, navigating the nuances that federal employees need to know is exhausting.

If you’ve skimmed the 13 pages of COVID-19 guidance from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), complete with hyperlinks and legal citations, then you know the feeling. The bottom line is that government employees are expected to continue business as usual and to serve the public, while also making personal preparations for their families and planning for the unknowns and changing dynamics of the coronavirus outbreak.

But if it becomes necessary, what are your options for telework? What happens when your child’s school closes? If you need to be in the office as part of your job, what are your options for social distancing, or limiting public interactions?

These are among the topics OPM covers in its guidance. To be fair, this is uncharted territory for everyone, so OPM putting out this information helps everyone understand the basics. Deconstructing the nuances is where it gets challenging, though. For example, the guidance explains what options healthy employees have if they believe they came into direct contact with someone who has COVID-19, or if they need to care for a family member. But what if you just want to work from home out of an abundance of caution?


The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General said on March 11 that “COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” according to his prepared remarks. “It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.

Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

Leading up to this announcement, some government agencies were already taking action. On March 9, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) turned to telework to avoid the spread of the coronavirus at its headquarters office, according to The Washington Post. Citing an SEC email to its employees, The Post reported that the agency required employees working on the ninth floor of its office to stay home and encouraged all others to do the same.

A Homeland Security Department (DHS) facility in King County, Washington, will remain temporarily closed for 14 days, and employees were directed to self-quarantine, according to CNN. DHS Secretary Chad Wolf spoke publicly about the move during a March 3 House committee hearing, but new reporting suggests the facility may open sooner.

When asked about any governmentwide coordinated efforts to impose mandatory telework or social distance, Michael Cogar, an OPM Public Affairs Specialist, said OPM doesn’t have the authority to do that. “Each agency is responsible for determining when and how to use telework that works best for its mission and workforce,” Cogar said in an email. “OPM has no statutory authority over telework.”

For now, agencies are using their discretion on how to proceed. (Update: The Office of Management and Budget Acting Director released a March 12 memo encouraging agencies to expand telework flexibilities.)

If you haven’t already, it’s worth having a conversation with your supervisor about the nuances of working from home and when that might become necessary.

To make it a little easier, we’ve highlighted and condensed some of the pertinent questions and answers in the OPM guidance that you can use and share with colleagues.

If the World Health Organization (WHO) declares COVID-19 to be a pandemic, can an agency order one or more employees to evacuate their worksite and work from home? Yes. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, an agency can order employees to evacuate their regular worksites and work from home (or an alternative location mutually agreeable to the agency and the employee) during a pandemic health crisis. This applies to all employees, whether they have a telework agreement or not. Agencies are advised to consult with human resources and general counsel to determine appropriate collective bargaining obligations.

How should agencies manage telework during incidences of quarantinable communicable diseases, such as COVID-19? For an employee covered by a telework agreement, ad hoc telework arrangements can be used as flexibility to promote social distancing. Telework can be used as an alternative to sick leave to reduce exposure to COVID-19 or to care for a family member who is also seeking to reduce exposure to the disease. (Check out the full OPM guidance for further details.)

Can an agency order an employee to telework during a COOP event? Yes. By law, telework is a required component of agencies’ Continuity of Operations plans (COOP). COOP is intended to ensure that critical functions at the agency can continue in the event of disruptions, such as the need for social distancing. Employees participating in an agency telework program can be called upon during a COOP activation. If an agency COOP is in operation, that plan supersedes any telework policy. This allows greater flexibility to expand telework so that as many employees as possible are working during a COOP activation.

If local school systems are closed due to COVID-19, can employees telework with a child in the home? Agencies may choose, but are not required, to adjust their policies to make a special exception and allow employees to telework at home with children. In this case, OPM guidance says employees are expected to document non-work hours and use leave (paid or unpaid) to account for time spent caring for children.

Under normal circumstances, an employee’s home is not an approved telework location if the employee is required to care for a child or adult while working. But there are exceptions at this time. For example, if a federal office also closes because of COVID-19, the agency may authorize weather and safety leave. Essentially, this ruling supersedes telework restrictions and would allow employees to work from home while caring for loved ones.

However, if a federal office remains open, agencies cannot authorize weather and safety leave. That means employees who are not authorized to telework with children in the home would need to report to work or request annual or other paid time off.

What happens if an employee does not have a sufficient amount of work to perform to cover the entire telework day during incidences of COVID-19? Employees must always have a sufficient amount of work to perform throughout the workday teleworking, according to the guidance. Employees performing telework who do not have enough work must notify their supervisor and receive additional work or discuss leave options, such as annual leave, advanced annual leave, other paid time off (e.g., earned compensatory time off, earned credit hours), or leave without pay.

If an employee is healthy but chooses to stay home because he or she has been in direct contact with an individual exposed to COVID-19, in what pay/leave status is the employee placed?  Employees, covered by a telework agreement, can request permission from their supervisor to telework. Agencies could also consider expanding telework to any telework-eligible employee to provide additional flexibility.

For employees who are not currently covered by a telework agreement, agencies may also consider if there are portable duties (e.g., reading reports; analyzing documents and studies; preparing written letters, memorandums, reports and other correspondence; setting up conference calls, or other tasks that do not require the employee to be physically present), that would enable employees to telework on a situational basis. An ad-hoc telework agreement should be signed to cover this period of time.

What if an employee shows symptoms? There are several options. Employees can use available leave or request advanced leave. Leave without pay is another option. If these options aren’t applicable, agencies have the authority to place an employee on excused absence (administrative leave) and order the employee to stay at home or away from the workplace. Under administrative leave, employees would be paid.

OPM makes clear that advanced sick leave is not an employee entitlement. Sick leave regulations allow an employee to get advanced sick leave for exposure to a quarantinable communicable disease, such as COVID-19, with these caveats:

  • 240 hours (30 days) may be advanced if the employee would jeopardize the health of others while on the job because of exposure to a disease.
  • 104 hours (13 days) may be advanced if the employee is providing care for a family member who would jeopardize the health of others in the community because of exposure to a disease.

Do you have questions about coronavirus planning? Let us know, and we will include those questions and answers in future coverage. Include your questions in the form above or in the comment section below, or email [email protected] 

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