Department eases toward reopening

By Michael Doyle, Scott Streater | 05/28/2020 01:21 PM EDT

With a green light from the White House, the Interior Department is proceeding down what officials call the “path toward resuming normal operating conditions.”

A new Interior Department memo outlines the agency's plans for returning employees to work.

A new Interior Department memo outlines the agency's plans for returning employees to work. CDC(virus);Francis Chung/E&E News(Interior)

With a green light from the White House, the Interior Department is proceeding down what officials call the "path toward resuming normal operating conditions."

Each Interior bureau’s "COVID-19 Adaptive Operations Recovery Plan" has been approved by the Office of Management and Budget and is now in effect, Scott Cameron, acting assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, told employees.

"Offices/duty locations are encouraged to begin moving toward normal operations as conditions warrant and consistent with plans by utilizing available telework options," Cameron wrote in a May 22 memo that was posted yesterday on Interior’s website.


The memo comes as Interior prepares to return to business as usual in the new normal and adds some administrative details that were not included in Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s May 22 memo that was previously made public (Greenwire, May 26).

On March 22, Bernhardt directed any of Interior’s approximately 70,000 employees "not performing or supporting mission essential functions or performing mission critical functions" to telework. The order applied to every region, bureau and office.

At the time, just over 400 U.S. deaths had been attributed to COVID-19. The current U.S. death toll exceeds 100,000, roughly equivalent to the combined workforces of the Interior, Energy and Labor departments.

Now Interior is reeling back certain policies that had been adopted as the novel coronavirus advanced rapidly.

"We must now turn our attention toward the challenges and opportunities that a return to more normal operations bring," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a memo yesterday, adding that "I fully expect our return to ‘normal’ operations will be an ongoing process that will take time."

One anonymous Interior Department employee in the Washington metropolitan area said the agency appears to be taking a deliberate and cautious approach to bringing employees back to offices.

The D.C. area still has one of the highest rates of infection per 100,000 residents in the nation, and plans for Interior employees there are still under development, the source said.

"We have been told to expect to be on telework throughout the summer," the source said. "If you want to come back to the office, let your supervisor know and plans can be made, but if you can do your job from home, please stay there."

Cameron, for instance, noted that COVID-19-related hazardous duty pay is no longer authorized once a work location enters phase one of the White House "Guidelines for Opening Up America Again," or the relevant state or local government lifts stay-at-home orders.

The White House guidelines set certain criteria for entering the first phase of reopening, including a downward trajectory of COVID-19-like cases reported within a 14-day period.

Employers in phase one are supposed to encourage teleworking, minimize work travel and close common areas.

"Supervisors should also work with all teleworking employees to establish a mutually agreeable work schedule that enables the employee to effectively complete 80 hours of work each pay period," Cameron wrote.

Phase two can start when there is no evidence of an infection rebound in a locale, and it allows the resumption of nonessential travel while continuing to enforce "moderate" social distancing measures.

Cameron’s memo states that in phase two, the pandemic-related use of weather and safety leave is prohibited for Interior employees who do not fall within a high-risk or vulnerable population.

"At the state and local level, our progression toward regular operations will appropriately vary, and the pace of our own actions will be guided by the pace of governors and public health officials," Cameron wrote.

BLM representatives did not respond to a request for information. But the bureau has been moving in places like Colorado to bring employees back as the state this month lifted a stay-at-home order, and has allowed businesses to bring back up to 50% of employees to offices.

That effort mirrors recent moves by the bureau to slowly begin opening up recreation facilities, visitor centers and campsites for day use only in Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington state.

BLM, for example, last week reopened the Winnemucca Sand Dunes in Nevada for the first time since March 24 in response to the state lifting public health and safety restrictions. Other BLM areas in the state are slated to reopen Monday.