FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
From the effect of facial hair on proper mask fitting to teleworker requests for ergonomic chairs, Tia Miller is the Defense Logistics Agency’s go-to source on what’s legal and what leaders can expect of DLA’s 26,000 employees during the pandemic.
“If an employee can think of it or ask it, it’s probably come across my desk in the past year,” DLA’s chief counsel of labor and employment issues said.
Miller has spent the past 14 months answering a barrage of questions about employee and supervisor rights and responsibilities amid COVID-19. Most ventured into untrodden territory: Could the agency require virus testing? Are employees with asthma required to wear masks? And can sick employees be forced out of the office? Questions also surfaced about how much, if any, health-related information supervisors can request of employees.
Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, Defense Department policy and input from other federal attorneys guided much of Miller’s answers and advice to officials who set DLA-wide guidelines on topics like workplace practices and leave flexibilities. Though most of her support has been to DLA Human Resources staff, she’s also assisted DLA Installation Management and major subordinate command representatives, as well as working groups that’ve met weekly since March 2020 to address numerous aspects of working during COVID-19.
Her goal and that of DLA’s decision makers, Miller said, has been to balance the agency’s ability to meet customers’ needs while supporting its workforce.
“Our employees are spread around the world and they all have different personal circumstances. You have to deal with these situations and put into effect policies that are sensitive to the people, which is the most valuable asset of DLA, while making sure we can still accomplish our mission,” she said.
Setting DLA policy on employee- and labor-related issues has been a constantly evolving process, Miller continued. When the first vaccines became available at the end of December, for example, employees and managers asked whether they’d be granted administrative leave for getting shots. Initial scarcity of the vaccine meant some DLA employees in Germany had to drive to a medical facility four hours away to receive it while stateside employees stood in long lines awaiting their turn.
Miller worked with HR specialists to review the agency’s administrative leave policy and guidance from the Office of Personnel Management to determine early this year that four hours of leave could be granted for vaccine administration. DLA then tweaked its policy based on subsequent OPM guidance stemming from the April executive order granting federal employees leave for the vaccine.
“We try to be very transparent and get an answer out there as quickly as possible without getting ahead of the department,” Miller said. “This has impacted employees in real-time, so saying ‘Well, a policy is coming soon,’ isn’t helpful.”
DLA guidance has also been grounded in research and direction from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And like DOD policy, it, too, has had changes that result in follow-on guidance. Employees were originally allowed to wear gaiters and masks with valves for protection, but when the CDC modified its guidelines, the agency did the same.
That no pandemic has had such fatal consequences since the Spanish flu in 1918 made dealing with employee and labor issues a major effort, Miller said.
“A lot of this has been trial and error and using any glimmer into case law that we can find to support the position,” she said, adding that many concerns have been “matters of first impression,” a legal term for an issue that’s never been decided in court.
Only because her team managed other labor and employment issues was Miller able to dedicate her time solely to COVID-19-related efforts. Of all the policies she’s provided input on, the most surprising involved facial hair and masks.
“Hair had to be cut closely for the masks we purchased for security officers early in the pandemic to have a proper fit, so we had to negotiate with the union on the degree to which our security officers had to shave,” she said.
And since some skin conditions can preclude a person from shaving close enough for proper mask wearing, Miller also assisted with reasonable accommodation requests.
“I spent more time writing about shaving and skin conditions that impact mask wearing than I ever would have thought possible,” she said. “But these were valid concerns that needed to be addressed from a legal perspective.”
Miller added that she believes the agency is better prepared to deal with national health crises in the future thanks to the long days and dedication of employees in disciplines like human resources and legal.
“This isn’t a situation where we’re setting the policy and immune to it. We’re all in this pandemic together, so it impacts us too,” she said. “And even though we’ve been concerned with the agency’s ability to do its mission, we’re also trying to put as much of a human face as possible on these issues to protect our most valuable asset: the employees.”