The Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate remain at odds over what should be included in the next COVID-19 relief legislation, but federal employees are likely to feel the impact no matter which version of the legislation is passed.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, passed by the House in mid-June takes the most steps to mandate protections for federal employees, requiring all agencies to remain on maximum telework until the end of 2020 and, in the long term, requiring agencies to increase their number of teleworking employees.
That legislation would also mandate maximum telework for federal contractors, wherever possible.
The Senate bill, the HEALS Act, does not include any such provisions, though a group of senators from both parties sent a letter to Senate leadership July 31 imploring them to include similar telework provisions in the final version of the bill.
“As new waves of COVID-19 cases continue to hit areas across the country, it is especially important for federal agencies to have a clear mandate that sets a positive example for employers to keep their workforces and communities safe. Plans to bring federal employees back into offices prematurely would threaten to erase the progress made against the coronavirus and increase community spread,” the 22 senators wrote.
The Senate bill does, however, include provisions that would allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to borrow up to $1.2 billion from the Treasury to offset revenue shortfalls and potentially prevent the planned furlough of over 13,000 agency employees.
The agency had informally requested $570 million for this fiscal year and $650 million for next year in order to offset losses caused by a decrease in citizenship and visa applications, as well as preexisting financial challenges.
The Senate bill would also mandate that members of the military who manifested symptoms of COVID-19 within 14 days of a duty period would be presumed to have contracted the virus during that duty period, for the sake of benefits entitlement.
The House bill would extend that presumption to federal employees that were required to be in contact with patients, the public or their coworkers during the pandemic.
That legislation would also protect employees that work in covered positions eligible for early retirement — such as law enforcement officers — from losing their retirement eligibility if the agency is forced to move them to a non-covered position, due to health complications caused by COVID exposure.
Democrats and Republicans have thus far been deeply divided about the contents of the next COVID relief package, meaning that the passage of such legislation could be a long time in coming.