Defense

‘Confusion and anxiety’ at Pentagon over telework guidance



Another U.S. official said some workers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — which analyzes images captured by America’s spy satellites — have been directed to use sick leave if they need to quarantine themselves and can’t work from home. NGA employees have a finite amount of sick leave, and the official feared the directions would discourage people from staying away from the office even if they felt they could expose others to the coronavirus.

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, called the instructions “dangerous and unfair.”

A spokesperson for the agency said officials had approved weather and safety leave for employees who can’t telework.

Teleworking is a challenge for many defense and intelligence officials, since many have to handle secret material or work on secure networks. It’s a particular problem for lower-level staffers who do not have the equipment to work remotely, or who must physically be in the building to check classified emails and access secret servers.

“It’s just very difficult to do our job without being in the building,” a third government official told POLITICO.

But because close contact with others can spread the virus, national security agencies are working to dramatically reduce how many people are in the building at any moment. The Pentagon is urging all of its 23,000 employees who can work from home to do so if possible, and looking to acquire additional devices to enable remote access to the Pentagon’s secret and classified networks. Many offices will “voluntarily go to minimal staffing,” including staggering shifts in the building “to limit cross-interaction.”

At the NGA, for instance, a spokesperson said the agency is aiming to have half as many people in its offices as would be there normally. And many staffers at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are also doing their work from home, according to two people close to the agency. An ODNI spokesperson said the agency is also using staggered shifts to limit how many people are present at any specific time.

Still, coronavirus cases have been creeping up throughout the Defense Department community in recent days. As of March 18, 51 service-members had tested positive for the virus, along with nine civilians, 10 military family members and 11 contractors.

Several National Security Agency employees have also put themselves in quarantine after returning home from countries with large coronavirus outbreaks, according to the U.S. government official. An intelligence official said that none of those employees have tested positive for the virus.

At the Pentagon, some civilians are choosing to come to work instead of taking leave because they can’t afford to lose a paycheck, defense officials said.

While the Pentagon has urged its employees to telework and restricted Pentagon visitors, it still hasn’t imposed its most severe limitations on in-person work.

Right now, Esper has only increased the Health Protection Condition level to BRAVO, or “moderate,” meaning at-risk civilians who do not have telework agreements must take sick leave rather than administrative leave in order to work from home, defense officials said.

In the Navy, for example, civilian employees can take an advance on their annual paid leave, according to a spokesperson. Employees without symptoms can also use “weather and safety” leave to telework, the spokesperson added.

That arrangement might change if Esper raised the Health Protection Condition level to CHARLIE, or “substantial.”

Individual telework agreements are also subject to the approval of direct supervisors, defense officials said, creating another potential complication.

“If someone wants to get a telework agreement, they can ask their supervisor. If the supervisor denies it because he/she needs the worker at the office, then they will have to take sick leave if they don’t want to come to work,” said another defense official.

Before the crisis, many supervisors at the Pentagon looked unfavorably on telework agreements because they were frequently abused, the defense official said, adding that some may have been reluctant to grant them “as a threshold matter.”

The result is that civilians are still coming to work every day who are not “mission essential,” said the first defense official, noting that the situation is causing “frustration.”

“Is this a national emergency or not? Clearly, it’s not,” the official said.



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