Earlier this month, as a response to the growing threat of coronavirus in the State of Washington, the Department of Homeland Security closed its facilities in the Evergreen State and directed all employees to work from home for two weeks. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf ordered the closure of a federal building in King County, WA, after it was determined that an employee had visited a family member at the Life Care facility in neighboring Kirkland, the nursing facility at the center of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Federal employees have been told to self-quarantine for two weeks while the DHS building is cleaned.
It isn’t just federal employees or government contractors in the Pacific Northwest who are being instructed to telecommute. The Office of Personnel Management has also urged agencies to ensure that federal employees are prepared to telework, and last Tuesday it issued new preliminary guidance on how this should be carried out.
“Agencies should immediately review their current COOP plans to ensure that telework has been fully incorporated and that as many employees as possible have been identified as telework employees in the plan, and are telework capable (or ‘telework ready’),” wrote OPM Director Dale Cabaniss, as reported by the Federal News Network.
In February the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also called upon businesses at all levels to consider telework options when possible. However, this isn’t always an option – and could be in direct conflict with agency policies.
The Departments of Agriculture and Education have policies in place that reduced telework to just one day a week, while the Department of the Interior had eliminated telework for its supervisors. As recently as last Monday the Social Security Administration reduced the eligibility for approximately 4,000 of its employees to work from home, a policy that was announced in January.
Other agencies don’t have the luxury of telecommuting. This includes the Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Safety Administration.
“Agents recognize we are going to be exposed, but we have to do our job. We have to be on the border, we have to be patrolling the border,” Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told CNN this month.
the case Against Telework
While the OPM and other agencies have called for workers to be able to telecommute – a policy that is being adopted across the nation as way to keep people safe from coronavirus/COVID-19 – there is a valid concern that this could create other problems.
Instead of just worrying about coronavirus during such a crisis, experts are warning that everyone also think about computer viruses and other cybersecurity threats.
“Year round, the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) encourages everyone to be safe and secure online,” said Kelvin Coleman, NCSA’s executive director. “However, during times of national hardship, such as the coronavirus outbreak, bad actors increase their fraudulent activities. As such, we urge everyone to be extra vigilant against online scams, including phishing and malware that are more prevalent in times like these.”
NCSA called upon companies to establish security policies and guidelines for remote workers and train those employees on these policies and the company’s expectations. The alliance suggested that companies should also have a clear process for reporting any IT issues for remote workers so they know who to turn to for support.
In other words, thinking about worker safety should be equal parts coronavirus and computer virus. Agencies, government contractors and any employer should consider the risks of having employees work remotely, and the steps that need to be taken to make telework options safe – for employees and networks.
“It’s certainly a question that companies should be asking,” said technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. “At the very least, those telling employees to work from home should provide guidelines on how to secure home networks and business devices,” he told ClearanceJobs. “For managers or executives accessing business critical files and data, VPNs or other highly secure comms technologies might be appropriate. If organizations haven’t already begun working with collaboration platforms and tools, now would be a good time to get rolling.”
The other consideration is that this isn’t just sending people home for a day or two.
“A central challenge with the coronavirus is that it’s unclear exactly how long these measures will need to stay in place,” added King. “So it would be wise for businesses to consider and implement solid, long term solutions than to slap on a band-aid and hope for the best.”