More than 500 State Department employees sign letter opposing return to offices

More than 500 State Department employees are calling on the Trump administration to back down from its decision to send up to 80 percent of department staff in Washington, D.C., back to work in person amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The State Department announced Monday that it was moving its offices in Washington to phase two of its reopening plan, allowing offices to be occupied at up to 80 percent, NBC News reported.

More than 540 State Department employees signed a letter cautioning against the move, according to the outlet. The note was privately sent to Under Secretary of State Brian Bulatao Thursday. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"We write today with a request for your continued advocacy for maximizing workplace flexibilities and to sensitize you to the ways in which moving too quickly to Phase II, both domestically and overseas, could lead to reduced productivity, negative consequences for manager-employee relations, detrimental effects to the health and safety of employees, and disparate consequences that would counteract the Department's objectives for diversity and inclusion," the letter obtained by NBC News says. 

A shift to the State Department’s second phase of reopening is supposed to require a 14-day downward trend of COVID-19 cases, according to NBC News, which has not been achieved in the Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland area. The reopening is also contingent on other conditions, like the availability of area schools and day cares.

Washington, D.C., public schools announced Thursday that they will start the school year entirely virtually.

"Care facilities and caregivers are not widely available and employees do not feel safe returning to the office," the employees wrote in the letter, NBC News reported. "The viral prevalence, and thus risk of infection, is far higher than when the Department sent everyone home in March."

The employees are calling for the department to return to phase one, in which 40 percent of offices can be staffed. They are also urging officials to make it clear that all employees who have been approved to telework can continue to serve “without retribution,” until schools have reopened.

The State Department learned this week that an employee who works on the seventh floor of its headquarters down the hall from Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGOP lawmaker calls for Justice Dept. to probe international court Trump hits Hong Kong leader with sanctions Overnight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration MORE has tested positive for coronavirus.

ADVERTISEMENT

The employee was at the headquarters as recently as Tuesday, according to NBC News. Several other staff members also tested positive this week, including some who work at a nearby annex. 

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill that "employees who are in vulnerable populations are not required to return to the office.”

"During this phase, telework flexibilities are still encouraged given child care, eldercare, and transportation concerns,” the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson added that "All employees are to abide by social distancing guidelines and face covering mandates when at Department facilities."

—Updated at 1:06 p.m.