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USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus but faces concerns on telework

USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus but faces concerns on telework
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has closed a wing of its headquarters after one of its employees tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting concerns from some employees about the agency's telework policies.

A USDA employee tested positive for the virus after developing a fever late last week.

USDA closed the affected portion of its south building for cleaning, telling employees they should work remotely until the area was given the all-clear.

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“All employees with an office on the second floor of the sixth wing should begin teleworking effectively immediately. This is to ensure the health and safety of our employees on the 6th wing while continuing the effectiveness of our Department’s mission,” an administrator for USDA’s agricultural marketing service wrote to employees.

A USDA spokesperson confirmed the outbreak.

“On Sunday, March 15th, a USDA employee in the National Capital Region (NCR) informed USDA that they received a positive test result for coronavirus. That same day, USDA notified employees who work in close proximity to the employee that they should begin teleworking immediately to help ensure the safety and health of our employees,” a spokesperson told The Hill by email. 

“USDA also announced on Sunday that maximized telework is available for NCR employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17," the email said.

But USDA employees say they’ve been given conflicting information about the agency’s policy. In internal emails reviewed by The Hill, a USDA employee informs others that if more than three employees from any given team wish to telework, the plan must be approved by Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueFederal judge strikes down Trump's cuts on food stamps for unemployed EU's 'farm to fork' demands could mean indigestion for US food exporters Baldwin calls for Senate hearing on CDC response to meatpacking plant coronavirus outbreak MORE’s office.

“If it impacts more than 3 people, I need approval from the Office of the Secretary,” one employee writes.

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That leaves the decision over whether to permit telework to the heads of the various agencies within USDA, which includes the Forest Service, the Agricultural Marketing Service, and the Farm Service Agency, among others.

USDA stressed to The Hill Tuesday that the three-person policy was no longer in place.

"Folks were told to maximize telework for employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 through Friday, April 3, 2020," a spokesperson said by email.

The federal government employs strict agreements that dictate when and whether employees can work from home. Many managers have encouraged employees to begin getting telework agreements in place. 

Updated at 1:33 p.m.