Diplomats plead with State Department not to rush return to offices

Exclusive: More than 500 staff members are asking for a reversal of a decision to send up to 80 percent of State Department staff back to work in D.C. offices.
Image: State Department exterior
Greg Mathieson / Mai/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images file

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By Josh Lederman and Abigail Williams

WASHINGTON — More than 500 State Department employees are privately pleading with the Trump administration to pull back its decision to send up to 80 percent of its staff members in Washington back to work in person after an employee who works near Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's office tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

In a letter to State Department leaders obtained by NBC News, the staffers assert that the department didn't follow its own guidelines for when it's safe and feasible to return to the office. The State Department announced in an email to staff members Monday that it was moving its Washington offices into Phase II of its reopening plan, in which offices can be occupied at up to 80 percent.

"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 says.

The letter, written by career State Department employees, was addressed to Undersecretary of State Brian Bulatao, a top aide to and longtime friend of Pompeo. It was sent privately to Bulatao on Thursday. NBC News obtained access to a Google Doc to which employees were adding their names as co-signers ahead of its being sent. More than 540 State Department employees signed the letter.

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Alarm is spreading rapidly in Washington about whether government workers are being put at high risk of transmission of COVID-19 on the job.

This week, the State Department's administrative bureau learned that an employee who works on the seventh floor of the Harry S. Truman building, down the hall from Pompeo's office in what's known as Mahogany Row, had tested positive, according to an internal State Department email obtained by NBC News.

The employee was in the office as recently as Tuesday, and an outside company disinfected the area after the case was discovered, the email shows. Several other staff members in Washington also tested positive this week, including some who work in a large State Department annex across the street from the headquarters.

The State Department declined to comment on those cases other than to say that it takes "every precaution to protect our workforce as the country emerges from this pandemic and as our workforce carefully returns to the workplace."

Even as public health guidelines urge universal adoption of mask-wearing and social distancing, those protective measures have often been ignored in the halls of government or even discouraged by the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress.

On Wednesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who snubbed masks and was reported to have "berated" staff members for wearing them, tested positive for COVID-19 hours before he had been set to join President Donald Trump on Air Force One, leading House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to impose a mask mandate on the floor of the House.

In its Diplomacy Strong plan for COVID-19 staffing, the State Department laid out three phases of reopening for its offices in the U.S. and its embassies and other missions internationally, according to a copy of the plan obtained by NBC News. Moving into Phase II, in which offices can be staffed at up to 80 percent, is supposed to require a 14-day downward trend in COVID-19 cases, as well as local availability of schools and day care, among other conditions.

The letter says neither of those conditions has been met in the Washington-Maryland-Virginia area, where the agency's Foggy Bottom headquarters is located. District of Columbia schools announced Thursday that they won't open for in-person learning before November.

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

The employees are urging the Trump administration to return the State Department to Phase I, in which offices can be staffed only up to 40 percent, and to make it clear to all offices and international missions that everyone who's been cleared to telework can continue to do so "without retribution" until local schools have reopened. That's a particular concern for diplomats serving in far-flung parts of the world where it's difficult to secure alternative child care.

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The State Department, responding to questions about the letter, said the decision to send up to 80 percent of employees back to the office in the Washington area was made "after carefully assessing the local conditions and in close coordination" with the State Department's medical bureau.

"Employees who are in vulnerable populations are not required to return to the office," the spokesperson said. "During this phase, telework flexibilities are still encouraged given childcare, eldercare, and transportation concerns."

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

At least 17 State Department staff members have already died of COVID-19, and 1,280 more workers internationally have been infected, according to the most recent State Department statistics released in mid-July. At the start of the pandemic, the State Department also made public the number of COVID-19 cases among the ranks of employees serving "stateside" in the U.S., but it has since stopped keeping track.