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Coronavirus could push Trump Administration to allow more federal workers to work from home

OPM encourages agencies to dust off telework plans. Unions and Democrats urge even more flexibility.

WASHINGTON — A lot of people are now wondering if they can work from home to avoid potential exposure to the new coronavirus.

Union leaders are urging the Trump Administration to immediately allow as many federal workers as possible to telework.

The Centers for Disease Control still says the risks in the U.S. are low, but federal agencies are dusting off plans to keep the government running if things get worse.

The drumbeat of virus news has a lot of people using a new phrase: "social distancing," which means keeping yourself away from large crowds, including those at work.

"I'm getting more and more concerned," Andy Grose, a civilian Department of Defense worker said.  "We've talked about it a lot today," said Jennifer Noel, a government information specialist at FEMA.

The spread of coronavirus has the federal Office of Personnel Management strongly encouraging agencies to review and update their "emergency" and "continuity of operations plans." And that includes telework. 

"It does make me feel safer," Government Lawyer Tamar Terzian said about working from home. "It doesn't make my life easier because I'm an extrovert, so I need people."

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The American Federation of Government Employees is urging the Trump Administration to do even more. The union representing 700,000 federal and city workers says it should immediately allow any worker to work from home if they can.

"Definitely would rather be working from home. It's 100 percent doable in my case," government contract worker Ayaz Memon said. 

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Of course, it's impossible for some people. Tim Anderson is an art handler for the Smithsonian. "I can't touch the art from home," he said with a laugh.

Some in Congress complain the administration's plans are still too complicated and leave agencies far too much wriggle room when it comes to protecting their employees and their families.

The Trump Administration had been cracking down on telework. Advocates are hoping the current situation will encourage the White House to re-think that.

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