In these early-ish days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government is still working to figure out how to provide the essential services that are needed now more than ever.
The USDA, with a large and varied group of departments under its umbrella, is at the front lines of many of the biggest projects. And that’s been made harder after the news of a positive coronavirus test at the USDA’s headquarters, prompting a wing to be sent home.
As reported by Government Executive, an employee in one wing of the USDA’s headquarters—the second floor of the sixth wing of the south building, if that matters—tested positive for COVID-19. The USDA later confirmed that report to multiple sources. The wing of the building was shut down quickly, with all employees sent home to work remotely, while the wing undergoes cleaning.
There have been slightly contradictory messages regarding the USDA’s policy during this time. That doesn’t make the USDA unusual; a ProPublica investigation found little continuity and overarching guidance in the many hundreds of individual sections of the federal government. The USDA said on Sunday that it would be moving forward towards “maximum telework,” indicating that anyone who can work remotely should do so. Previously, USDA workers were told that the absence of more than three workers from any single group would require approval from the office of Secretary Sonny Perdue.
On Tuesday, March 17th, the USDA published a guide to what services are currently still being done. Those include many vital or difficult-to-accomplish-remotely services, like food inspections (meat, poultry, and eggs), forest protection, and data collection. Much of the USDA’s work can be done remotely, and hopefully will be done that way for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak.
It is unclear how smoothly the USDA will be able to transition to a majority-telework process. In 2018, Sonny Perdue decreed that employees may only telework one day per week, a drastic reduction from the four days per week that was permitted before. It’s not necessarily an easy task to have thousands of employees relocate without loss in productivity due to technical or bureaucratic issues. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice.