The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has already begun work toward reopening its offices in accordance with phase one of the White House’s Opening Up America Again plan, but members of the House Committee on Homeland Security and witnesses at a June 16 hearing suggested that reopening plans should prioritize personnel health and safety.

According to Oversight, Management, and Accountability Chairwoman Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., DHS has reported about 1,600 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths among its employees. While the members took several moments to recognize lives lost to the virus, going forward some acknowledged that increase cleaning and testing could keep DHS personnel safe as they return to the office.

“As DHS resumes these operations, it is important that the department have plans in place to adequately protect the workforce’s health and safety,” Torres Small said in her opening statement. “Such as regularly cleaning facilities, adjusting workspaces to align with social distancing guidelines, and providing personal protective equipment.”

Torres also suggested tools such as contact tracing alongside testing and other guidelines could help minimize exposure to the virus among the Federal workforce.

Ranking Member of the subcommittee Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, agreed that DHS should keep its focus on personnel health and safety.

“Given that many DHS employees continue to work at their duty stations, the department should focus its plans on keeping all DHS employees – whether in the office or in the field – safe and healthy as we continue to battle COVID-19,” he said. Crenshaw added that DHS’s reopening plan should be drafted with flexibility to adapt to the changing circumstances.

As employees return to work in person, President of the National Treasury Employees Union Tony Reardon said that DHS employees should not have to worry about their health, safety, or being furloughed. Robust testing and contact tracing could be put in place as employees interact with members of the community, he added.

“It’s one thing to put out guidance … but I think there needs to be some follow-up so that people understand exactly what does that guidance mean,” Reardon said while acknowledging that the agency has put out reopening guidance so far, but it’s not always clear enough for implementation.

Everett Kelley, president of the American Federal of Government Employees, suggested that more engagement between officials making reopening policies and DHS personnel would help improve the clarity of reopening guidelines. He also recommended science-based methods to help workers safely return to the office.

President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd added that DHS’s treatment of its employees in response to the coronavirus, specifically when it came to providing personal protective equipment (PPE), has been commendable.

“[DHS] gave us plenty of PPE,” he said. “We’ve been able to protect ourselves as well as those individuals that we come in contact with. If this is what has been done departmentwide, I think that we’re in a very good place.”

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.