Answering Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 in the Government Workplace
The spread of COVID-19 continues to radically transform how we conduct all types of business, including critical government work that cannot wait for pandemic conditions to subside. Federal employees who are obligated to continue to work through the COVID-19 crisis, including in inherently riskier in-person facilities, may wonder about their rights should they become exposed to or infected with the virus.
Though we are now almost a year into the pandemic, rules and procedures for how outbreaks and symptomatic employees are still changing. Below, we answer many frequently asked questions about your COVID-19 rights as a federal employee.
Am I Entitled To Hazard Pay?
COVID-19 is an extremely infectious and often dangerous virus that has killed many and permanently disabled others. If you are effectively forced to work in-person while the virus continues to spread, which is inherently riskier than working from home, you might be wondering if you are entitled to any form of hazard pay due to your increased odds of exposure – which, in fairness, could be interpreted as a “hazardous duty.”
Unfortunately, you are most likely not entitled to hazard pay as a federal employee. Many employees can in theory receive hazard pay if exposed to “virulent biologicals.” However, one of the eligibility factors stems from the existence of reasonable safety precautions. If your worksite takes “generally accepted” safety precautions, you are not necessarily operating in a hazardous condition, even if COVID-19 is spreading and one or more outbreaks occurs at your facility. Safety precautions in this case consist of CDC and local guidance, which includes some combination of physical distancing, masking, sanitization, and telework where possible.
Hazard pay is also only decided on a case-by-case basis. Agency mangers must meet with occupational safety and health officials to determine if hazardous conditions warranting hazard pay occurred, and there is no mandatory timeline for issuing the additional pay. While you might understandably wish to receive some additional compensation if you are working in an inherently risky scenario, current government guidelines are not especially generous on this front.
Do I Qualify for Weather and Safety Leave If I Am Exposed To COVID-19?
Detecting COVID-19 before someone becomes infectious is extremely challenging, as one can begin to shed the virus long before they show symptoms. Others do not show symptoms at all, making them “silent carriers” unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.
If you are exposed to someone who is confirmed to be infected with COVID-19, you may then fairly be concerned that you could have the virus yourself and may even already be infectious. If you are not actively showing symptoms, it may seem tough to make the case that you should not be at an in-person worksite, even if recommended precautions like masks and physical distancing are in place.
Your agency manager is permitted to authorize weather and safety leave if they determine that your presence at the worksite constitutes a potential danger to others. Reading between the lines, if you can demonstrate that you were absolutely exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, your manager has the ability and imperative to permit weather and safety leave, even if you are presently asymptomatic. Management will likely consult CDC and local guidance for quarantining protocols before approving any leave.
Should you later become ill as a result of your exposure, your weather and safety leave will be adjusted to sick leave. Your agency must provide you with sick leave if the illness prevents you from performing your job responsibilities.
Will I Be Allowed To Telework?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is “it depends.” Government agencies have been heavily encouraged to permit telework wherever possible, including for employees and departments that do not have existing telework agreements.
Whether you will be authorized to telework during the pandemic will still ultimately depend on the discretion of your manager and likely the makeup of your job responsibilities. Your supervisor is not necessarily required to accommodate telework, even if you are at high-risk for developing complications from a COVID-19 infection. You may be able to request the ability to at least conduct job responsibilities that can be performed remotely from home, but if your position requires in-person activity, telework may not be possible.
If I Am Teleworking, Does My Agency Have To Pay for My Additional Expenses?
When you work from home, you may need to upgrade elements of your workstation to adequately keep up with your job responsibilities. This might mean purchasing new computer equipment that cannot be brought over from your worksite or investing in ergonomic chairs or desks so that you can comfortably work for longer periods of time.
Government employees are not guaranteed any compensation for these types of teleworking expenses. With that said, an agency head has the ability to grant special allowances in these situations for the duration of the pandemic. You may be able to receive some level of compensation by making a request, but understand that the agency is not obligated to cover these expenses.
Do I Need To Provide a Doctor’s Note To Be Granted Sick Leave?
Sometimes, but possibly not in cases involving COVID-19. Generally speaking, government agencies require “administratively acceptable” evidence to support the necessity of granting of sick leave. Self-attestation – that is, merely informing your employer that you are sick – can be considered administratively acceptable evidence. In situations where the sick leave lasts longer than 3 days, however, an agency may require more substantial prove beyond simply taking your word for it.
COVID-19-related illnesses typically last for a minimum of 2 weeks and sometimes even longer. If you become sick with COVID-19, a positive test result will likely be sufficient in demonstrating your need to remain home and not work.
Does Management Have To Tell Me If I Have Been Exposed at Work?
Yes, agency management is required to inform its workforce when a positive case of COVID-19 has been detected among its employees. The disclosure process can be somewhat thorny, as supervisors must attempt to conceal the identity of the infected individual. Because that individual will presumably no longer be on the premises, it may well be obvious who tested positive.
Unfortunately, not revealing the specific identity of the individual or individuals exposed can make contact tracing additional exposures difficult. Your management should make every effort to give you as much information as possible about the possibility of your exposure. This may include flagging employees typically seated near the infected individual or those who commonly interact with them without actually identifying the employee.
What Happens If I Run Out of Sick Leave but Am Still Exhibiting COVID-19 Symptoms?
As we mentioned above, some individuals infected with COVID-19 will continue to display symptoms or otherwise be seriously ill for many weeks or even months after becoming infected. It is conceivable that one could exhaust the extent of accrued sick leave while recovering from an extended battle with COVID-19.
In situations where a federal employee has exhausted their accrued sick leave, their agency has the ability to “advance” sick leave to allow the worker to continue to recover. While this option is not guaranteed to employees, agencies have been encouraged to exercise this ability to avoid putting the rest of their workplace in danger of exposure and infection.
Up to 30 days of sick leave can be advanced to employees who would pose a threat to their workplace if they were to return to work in their current state. A maximum of 13 days can be advanced to employees who are caring for one or more loved ones that are actively sick with the virus.
Working during a pandemic is unavoidably stressful, especially if infections are occurring at your worksite or you fear inadvertently exposing a high-risk loved one in your household. You may understandably wish to exercise every possible precaution to avoid contracting the virus, including exploring the possibility of teleworking or voluntarily quarantining if exposed. If your agency is being uncooperative or cavalier with COVID-19 protocols, we want to help. Our federal employment attorneys at Pines Federal have exclusively practiced in this area for over 20 years. Our team will do whatever it takes to protect your rights.
Schedule a consultation with our firm by calling (800) 801-0598 or contacting us online.