‘Confusion and anxiety’ at Pentagon over telework guidance

By Betsy Woodruff Swan, Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman

National security staffers are fretting that confusing telework guidance has left an overabundance of employees showing up to the office amid a global pandemic.

While health officials have encouraged Americans to work from home if possible as the coronavirus spreads through the United States, Pentagon and intelligence community officials have sent mixed signals about what their own staffers should do, according to three national security officials and a top senator who oversees the intelligence community. As a result, these staffers said, some Defense Department civilian employees who don’t need to be at work are still coming in every day, raising the risk that the virus will spread through the Pentagon’s ranks.

“You go outside the building and every other workplace is saying go home, but there are quite a few people in the building that are not mission-essential,” said one defense official.

At issue is the question of how national security and intelligence officials who feel they need to self-quarantine but can’t work from home are supposed to get time off. Agency spokespeople said there are various options for employees in such scenarios, but several officials said these offerings have been insufficient and poorly messaged. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, picked up on these complaints and recently wrote Defense Secretary Mark Esper, expressing concern.

“These personnel should not face uncertainty or obstacles in their efforts to preserve our individual or collective health,” he wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO. Warner said the instructions “have ambiguity that is creating confusion and anxiety,” calling the issue a “matter of urgent priority.”

The Pentagon defended its approach, pointing out that its guidelines are consistent with government-wide instructions issued by the Office of Personnel Management. Pentagon spokesperson Alyssa Farah said employees can use paid “weather and safety leave” — paid time off when employees can't safely get to work — if they want to self-quarantine yet are not eligible to telework. Another Pentagon spokesperson added that OPM guidance lets agencies give advanced sick leave to employees who run out of it, noting that employees can also request an advance on their annual paid time off allotment.

But several staffers said such instructions have been inconsistent and incomplete.

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.