WASHINGTON — Even as most states rollback pandemic restrictions and federal officials lift mask mandates for vaccinated employees, one key agency has remained hamstrung by social distancing guidelines that limit on-site staffing to just 25% of its workforce — a limit that’s gone unchanged since January.
The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), a part of the National Archives, is responsible for providing veterans and veteran families proof of service, which are often needed to obtain military benefits like financial aid, access to veterans facilities, or burials at veterans cemeteries.
But a reduced on-site workforce at NPRC offices in St. Louis — the only location where employees can access the paper records — has created a backlog of nearly half a million service requests, keeping some veterans from their benefits since the start of the pandemic.
After NBCLX reported on the agency’s slow return to the office in March 2021, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough worked with the National Archives to improve service and to get NPRC employees prioritized for COVID vaccines so they could safely return to the office.
The NPRC then tripled its on-site capacity to 25%, but a majority of employees were still working remotely, many without access to documents or even work computers.
Months later, the agency has yet to make substantial progress on its backlog of veteran requests because federal agencies are still not allowed to bring more than 25% of their workforce on-site in high- or substantial-transmission states, per Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rules.
Even with Missouri coming off the list of substantial-transmission states this past week, the NPRC will not immediately expand its on-site workforce; an agency spokesperson told NBCLX, “the 25% occupancy limit is still in effect. We follow the guidance of the Administration.”
A spokesperson for OMB would not say when workplace occupancy limits would be changed, but “we will continue to update based on public health guidance.”
“It's time to lift those restrictions,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), Ranking Member on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “I want a safe environment for our employees…(but) let's get them vaccinated. Let's get back to work and catch up for the veterans.”
“You’ve got to understand how important these records are, like the (Form) DD 214...people are dying while waiting.”
Bost has sent a series of letters to the NPRC — signed by many of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle — imploring the agency to process requests faster. Twenty-five percent of its workforce is only about 150 people on-site at any one time, despite its massive 2 million cubic foot building.
The NPRC estimates it will take nine months to clear its backlog of veteran requests.
“This is not a partisan issue. Our veterans don't care who is fighting for them, whether it's Republican or Democrat. And we're united in trying to get this done,” said Bost.”
Bost says vaccination rollouts should prompt the OMB to change its restrictions. When asked what percentage of its staff has received a vaccination, an NPRC spokesperson responded that the agency is prohibited from polling its staff.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and an OMB official told NBCLX in a statement, “At this time, maximum telework and workplace occupancy limits remain in place – but we will continue to update based on public health guidance.”
Last week, the OMB lifted mask requirements for fully-vaccinated employees and visitors.
In December, Congress appropriated $50 million to the NPRC to help expedite veterans’ requests, by funding new hires and resources to digitize more records.
The NPRC says it is now servicing 17,000 requests per week, including most VA requests for the adjudication of benefit claims within 2-3 work days.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.