Anxiety, anger as State Dept. moves ahead with reopening despite area infection rate

Despite a rise in coronavirus cases, the State Dept. declared this week that it was ready to progress to Phase 2 of its reopening plan-- sparking anxiety and anger.

8/2/2020 5:34:00 AM

According to the latest ABC News analysis of the coronavirus’s spread, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have all seen increases in cases, rates of positivity, and hospitalizations in recent days.

Despite a rise in coronavirus cases, the State Dept. declared this week that it was ready to progress to Phase 2 of its reopening plan-- sparking anxiety and anger.

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Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty ImagesAccording to the latest ABC News analysis of thecoronavirus’s spread, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have all seen increases in cases, rates of positivity, and hospitalizations in recent days.Despite those climbing numbers, the State Department announced this week that it has moved ahead to the second phase of its reopening plan -- sparking anxiety and anger among a workforce comprising many unable or unwilling to return.

The department is just one of several government agencies at which employees and their unions have expressed concern about returning to work too soon and putting them at risk.According to the department's"Diplomacy Strong" plan, which was launched in May, the second reopening phase is supposed to begin when there is a 14-day downward trend in cases, as well as the availability of public transit, schools or day cares, and open non-essential businesses.

The US Department of State building in Washington on July 22, 2019.The US Department of State building in Washington on July 22, 2019.Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty ImagesWhile some of those conditions have not been met, a State Department spokesperson told ABC News Friday the move to phase two was made by department leadership"using guidance from the White House, CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and local governments combined with objective criteria informed by data and good judgment."

MORE: Face shields can't replace masks, experts say, but some hope they work as last resortWhat's most troubling to several employees is that phase two involves 40% to 80% of employees working on-site at facilities in the D.C. area.But it also says while mandatory telework is"lifted," individual bureaus within the agency"are encouraged to continue telework opportunities whenever possible within mission needs," according to a copy obtained at the time by ABC News.

The department spokesperson would not say whether each office must have a minimum of 40% of its employees back at work, only that phase two"allows up to 80% of Department employees to return."Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.

But in its statement to ABC News, the State Department indicated there will be some flexibility for individual offices to decide:"Employees who are in vulnerable populations are not required to return to the office. During this phase, telework flexibilities are still encouraged given health, childcare, eldercare, and transportation concerns," it said.

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Still, many employees have been left confused about whether their bosses are empowered to decide."We hope that the Department reconsiders this decision or, at the very least, ensures that there is no minimum percentage of employees which must report to work," the American Foreign Service Association, the Foreign Service's union, said in a statement Wednesday.

AFSA has urged department leadership to reverse phase two, which employees were notified Monday began that same day.MORE: Trump's defiant campaign amid pandemic ramps up ground game, as Biden looks for another way"While we share our members' eagerness to get back to in-person work, AFSA believes that the criteria set out by the Department -- data, conditions on the ground in specific locations, and employee safety -- have not been met," the union said, adding that it expressed"serious concerns" in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Monday, particularly for parents, since most schools in the area are continuing to teach virtually into the fall.

So far, AFSA has not received a response from the agency, a spokesperson told ABC News. The department spokesperson has not responded to ABC News' follow-up questions.In addition to AFSA, a group of hundreds of D.C.-based career employees organized a letter to department leaders asking them to continue"maximizing workplace flexibilities" like telework, according to NBC News.

Read more: ABC News »

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