If your routine visa services are still open during this pandemic, please tell us why (Updated)

Update: March 16, 4:58 PDT US Embassy Seoul, South Korea still doing routine visa services (see below)
From a March 14 message from State/M Brian Bulatao:
“We may never have experienced a situation exactly like this before, but the Department has plenty of experience dealing with emergencies. We know that we have to make good decisions for ourselves, for our families, for our colleagues, and are actively taking into account the needs and challenges of individual team members who may be at a higher risk if they contract COVID-19.
This means, if you are sick, please stay home. If a member of your household is sick, please stay home. If you think you may have been exposed, it is best to stay home – you do not have to take annual leave if you are set up to telework. Reducing contact with other people is our best defense against the spread of the virus.”
If your routine visa services are still open during this pandemic, we’d like to know why.
If your post is able to do social distancing for visa applicants while continuing full services, we’d like to know how.
At the US Embassy in Israel, a COVID19-positive individual visited the Embassy Branch Office Non-Immigrant Visa Section waiting room in Tel Aviv on March 5, the Embassy announced that it directed its affected staff to quarantine on March 12.
US Embassy Seoul: We’re told that despite being a Level 3 COVID-19 country with very active community spread for the past few weeks, has continued to do routine NIV visa services and is still doing routine NIV visa services. “Those from epicenter areas are able to walk in like anyone else. No temp checks or additional screenings! Guards are not allowed to turn visibly sick people away. Visa appointments are only down because people aren’t traveling as much. However you can still get an appointment easily for (F, M, J, B) This is also a visa waiver country.”  (Note: South Korea is a CDC Level 3 country, and a State Department Level 3: Reconsider Travel country as of this writing).

Updated: 5:30 PDT, March 18, 2020

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OPM Issues Guidance For Maximum Telework Flexibilities, Employees to Seek Direction From Agency Heads

 

On March 15, Acting OPM Director Russell  T. Bought issued an “Updated Guidance for the National Capital Region on Telework Flexibilities in Response to Coronavirus”:

In light of the evolving situation concerning the corona virus (“COVID-19”) and the National Capitol Region (NCR) experiencing community transmission, the Administration wants to ensure that department and agency leaders assertively safeguard the health and safety of their workforce while remaining open to serve the American people and conduct mission critical functions.

All Federal Executive Branch departments and agencies within the National Capital Region (NCR), consistent with OMB’s recent guidance (0MB M-20-13), are asked to offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, consistent with operational needs of the departments and agencies as determined by their heads. In addition, we encourage agencies to use all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees, to the extent their work could be telework enabled. If employees are not eligible for telework, agency heads have the discretion to offer weather and safety leave, or the agency’s equivalent, including for employees who may not have been considered “at higher risk” under 0MB M-20- 13. Furthermore, agency heads should develop an operational plan that maximizes resources and functional areas to most safely and efficiently deliver these mission-critical functions and other Government services (including but not limited to staggered work schedules and other operational mitigation measures).

See OMB Guidance M-20-15 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/M20-15-Telework-Guidance-OMB.pdf)
Over a week ago, we understand that State/M Bulatao asked employees with mobile/remote access to test their remote access capabilities by participating in a worldwide remote log-in exercise.
This OPM guidance is only for the National Capital Region (NCR) but related to this, a concerned source recently told us that many State Department management platforms are “still not cloud based” or “not outsourced to regional centers”, and so for overseas employees, many locally employed staff must come into work.

 

Turkish Court Rules to Keep USG Employee Metin Topuz in Jail

 

Reuters reported on December 11, that a Turkish court ruled that U.S. Consulate General Istanbul employee, Metin Topuz remain jail “as his trial on espionage charges continues.”
Reuters previously reported in September that the lawyers for Metin Topuz applied in January to the European Court of Human Rights and that  the ECHR has accepted the application.
The AP previously reported that Topuz began working at the consulate in 1982 as a switchboard operator and was promoted to work as an assistant and translator to the DEA’s American personnel in Turkey a decade later.
Topuz was first arrested in October 2017 and has now been incarcerated for over two years. He is still an employee of the U.S. Government. We’ve been wondering what’s going to happen to him. There’ll be another hearing in March. And on and on it goes? Until when?
The State Department has previously updated its Foreign Affairs Manual in 2017 which provides the terms and conditions for authorizing compensation payments for current and former locally employed (LE) staff who are/were imprisoned by foreign governments as a result of their employment by the United States Government.
So for “amount of benefit” which applies to locally employed staff at State and All Agencies under Chief of Mission Authority (includes DEA):

a. State:  Compensation may not exceed an amount that the State Deputy Assistant Secretary for HR determines to approximate the salary and benefits to which an employee or former employee would have been entitled had the individual remained working during the period of such imprisonment.

b. All other agencies:  Compensation may not exceed an amount that the agency head determines to approximate the salary and benefits to which an employee or former employee would have been entitled had the individual remained working during the period of such imprisonment.

c.  Once the compensation amount has been set, each agency will deny or reduce this compensation by the amount of any other relief received by the employee or other claimant, such as through private legislation enacted by the Congress.

Under the section of “other benefits”:

Any period of imprisonment for which an employee is compensated under this section shall be considered for purposes of any other employee benefit to be a period of employment by the U.S. Government, with the following exceptions:

(1)  A period of imprisonment shall not be creditable toward Civil Service retirement unless the employee was covered by the U.S. Civil Service Retirement and Disability System during the period of U.S. Government employment last preceding the imprisonment, or the employee qualifies for annuity benefits by reason of other services; and/or

(2)  A period of imprisonment shall not be considered for purposes of workers’ compensation under Subchapter I of Chapter 81 of Title 5, U.S.C., unless the individual was employed by the U.S. Government at the time of imprisonment.

Just pause and think about this for a moment.  Local employees are typically are not paid in U.S. dollars but paid in local compensation plans/currencies. The United States Government will only pay the amount that the employee would have been entitled to if she were at work (and not in prison). Were Congress to allocate any compensation, USG will deny or reduce the amount claimed beyond the approximate salary.
So compensated for eight hours a day considered a workweek but none for weekends and 16 hours a day spent incarcerated and away from families or being slammed around by prison hosts? (A former Turkish official assigned to NATO arrested and accused as a “Feto” member spoke of tortures and show trials).
Wow!  This is breathtaking and full of heart, we wanna scream.
Also with very few exceptions, most locally employed staff are not covered by U.S. Civil Service retirement. But former USG local employees who gets in the cross-hairs of their governments and imprisoned due to their employment with the U.S. Government, their imprisonment “shall not be considered for purposes of workers’ compensation”. That only applies if they are employed by the USG at the time of imprisonment.
State/HR’s Overseas Employment should be proud of that ‘taking care of local employees’ award.

 

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The Giant Halkbank Octopus: New Episodes Coming Soon!

 

From our old post in 2017: Erdogan Rages Against the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara — What’s That About?

On March 19, 2016, Reza Zarrab an Iranian-Turkish citizen was arrested for allegedly engaging in hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of the Government of Iran and Iranian entities as part of a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions (Download u.s._v._zarab_et_al_indictment.pdf).

On March 28, 2017, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker was also arrested and charged for alleged conspiracies to violate the IEEPA and to commit bank fraud (Download US v. Mehmet Hakan Atilla complaint.pdf).

On September 6, 2017 DOJ announced the Superseding Indictment alleging that nine defendants (including a former Turkish Minister of the Economy (currently serving in Turkish Parliament), and a former General Manager Of Turkish Government-Owned Bank), “conspired to lie to U.S. Government officials about international financial transactions for the Government of Iran and used the U.S. financial system to launder bribes paid to conceal the scheme.”

In November 2017, NBC News also reported that Zarrab began cooperating with federal prosecutors in a money-laundering case.
According to avhal, the Turkish banker, Hakan Atilla served 32 months in prison in the United States for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, and was released on July 19 this year. On October 21, 2019, Turkey’s Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak (and Erdogan’s son-in-law) announced that the former Halkbank director has been appointed as the director general of Borsa Istanbul, Turkey’s main stock exchange.
On October 15, USDOJ announced that TÜRKİYE HALK BANKASI A.S., a/k/a “Halkbank,” was charged in a six-count Indictment with fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
On October 24, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon announced that he is launching an investigation into the Halkbank scandal.
Courthouse News Service Adam Klasfeld who has covered this case extensively notes in his October 22 report that “Turkey continued to hold three U.S. consulate workers in captivity with relative silence from the White House, and Halkbank kept an indictment at bay for more than two years, even after its ex-general manager Suleyman Aslan and executive Atilla had been charged with the multibillion-dollar conspiracy.”
Back in 2017, we thought this thriller which started out actually in 2013  (see the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins piece, A Mysterious Case Involving Turkey, Iran, and Rudy Giuliani) — with a cargo plane from Accra, Ghana, which was diverted to Istanbul’s main international airport, because of fog, and three thousand pounds of gold bars — was going to unravel under the glare of sunlight, but here we are in 2019.  So now we wait for the next episodes.

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Foreign Service Institute Rolls Out Pompeo’s Pursuit – A ‘One Team’ Four-Day Pilot Course For “Everyone”

Last week, Secretary Pompeo announced to agency employees that the Foreign Service Institute has launched its very first “One Team” pilot course.  Apparently, this new course is a four-day pilot  and “builds upon the ideas” expressed in the recently rolled out Professional Ethos. The purpose is  “to unite new employees around the “One Team, One Mission, One Future” vision and the unique history of the Department.”
The “One Team” course will reportedly supplement existing training to provide a common experience for new employees. According to Secretary Pompeo, “For the first time, Foreign Service, Civil Service, Limited Non-Career Appointments, and political appointees will all learn side-by-side. Everyone will grow as one team together”.

In developing the One Team course, we drew heavily from your thoughts on what new Department employees should know and understand about the Department, especially the importance of working together. As a result, the course will:

    • Explore the guiding principles of the Department, including our Professional Ethos;
    • Help employees connect their efforts and that of their colleagues to the Department’s mission;
    • Analyze how the Department’s work connects to the National Security Strategy, and the Department’s other strategic planning mechanisms;
    • Examine the meaning of the Oath of Office;
    • Investigate how the Department’s work directly benefits the American public; and
    • Inform our team about key accomplishments and personnel in the Department’s history that spans more than 230 years.
Supposedly, this course is “light on lectures” but full of “hands-on” engagement with the goal of “helping participants see how they each contribute” to the collective success as an organization.
There are reportedly 85 employees currently enrolled in the pilot course at FSI.  They are expected to provide feedback so the course can be “refined” for “several more trial runs this fall and in early 2020.”
Secretary Pompeo also told State Department employees that the goal is “to finalize the course and begin ramping it up next year to accommodate the roughly 1,600-1,800 new employees that the Department onboards every year.” He also said that “This critical investment will ensure that each one of our future colleagues is best prepared to join our efforts as champions of American diplomacy.”
We can’t tell right now how expensive is this project. Presumably, not as expensive as Rex Tillerson’s redesign project but one never know.  If you’re taking the course, we’re looking forward to hearing your assessment of the course, as well as assessment of the identified learning goals. Is this effective indoctrination, or a waste of dime and time? Are students in a bubble wrap or are they allowed to question the misalignment of stated values and actual practice we can see with our very stable faculties every day? Are trainers able to reconcile the gap between the stated professional ethos and reality? Is the State Department making this course mandatory for the leadership  at the Bureau of International Organizations, for starters or as refreshers?
There is also one glaring omission in the target audience for this course – the largest employee group in the State Department: not Foreign Service, not Civil Service, not Limited Non-Career Appointments, and not political appointees but it’s local employees, spanning over 275 posts, and totaling more than all other employee groups combined.  They do not appear to be included in this training “to unite new employees around the “One Team, One Mission, One Future” vision and the unique history of the Department.” These folks, almost all foreign nationals, often touted as the backbone of the State Department’s overseas presence, do not need to be champions of American diplomacy, do they?
Nothing shouts “One Team” louder than excluding local employees from this supposedly common, and unifying experience for new employees. This “One Team” training is in person right now, we can’t imagine State expending dollars to bring in LE employees from overseas to Washington, D.C. Although, one can make the case that if this is as important as they say it is, then doesn’t it make sense that all employees in the organization are trained and imbued with its specific point of view, and guiding principles? Are they considering an online course? web-based courses?
In any case, when the secretary says that this will help “everyone to grow as one team together”, everyone doesn’t really mean everyone, just all direct-hire American employees. But don’t fret, the $10,000 “One Team” Award is available for uh … Everyone. Even contractors. Oops, uh wait, what’s that?

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Snapshot: Comparative Look at @StateDept Staffing 2008 – 2018

Via state.gov:

(click image above for larger view)

 

Pompeo Announces Departure of All Remaining U.S. Embassy Caracas Diplomats From Venezuela

 

On March 14, Secretary Pompeo announced the “temporary” departure of all remaining US Embassy Caracas diplomats from Venezuela. He also said that “We look forward to resuming our presence once the transition to democracy begins. ”

Two days ago, the State Department reissued its Level 4 Do Not Travel Advisory after the March 11, 2019 announcement of temporary suspension of operations of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and withdrawal of diplomatic personnel in Venezuela. The advisory cautions American travelers to  “not travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention.”

Keep the local staffers in your thoughts, personnel withdrawal does not include the local employees. See CDA James Story video here with a message to the people of Venezuela.

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USAID Prepares to Shrink #WestBank/Gaza Presence, Pompeo Visits @USAID HQ

 

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Career Diplomat Lucia Piazza Talks About Surviving an Embassy Attack

Six years ago today, protesters attacked the US Embassy Tunis compound in Tunisia and torched the vehicles in the diplomatic compound (see US Embassy Tunisia: Protesters breach and set compound on fire (video); Embassy now on Ordered Departure).  Below is a TEDxFoggyBottom talk from June by a career diplomat who was there during that 2012 attack on Embassy Tunis. 

This is something to watch, especially for folks who do not quite understand the Foreign Service, or appreciate how career FS people many, many times had to tell their loved ones goodbye, send them off to safety without knowing if they will see them again, while they stay to do the jobs they are tasked to do in foreign countries that are often hostile and dangerous. 

Via YouTube/TEDx Talks

What does it take to survive a deadly attack on an embassy? For career Foreign Service Officer Lucia Piazza, strong leadership before a crisis is key to saving lives under pressure. Lucia Piazza is the Director of Crisis Management and Strategy in the Office of the Secretary of State. A career Foreign Service Officer, since joining the State Department in 2001 Lucia has represented the US government as a diplomat in countries throughout Africa and the Middle East. Lucia received a Master of Science degree in National Security Strategy from the National War College, National Defense University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of multiple awards including two Superior Honor Awards for her leadership during the 2012 attack on Embassy Tunis and a Superior Honor Award in 2017 for her leadership of the State Department’s response to Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria when she and her team oversaw the evacuation and repatriation of over 3000 U.S. citizens. Lucia speaks Arabic, French, Italian, and Spanish. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

 

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@StateDept Lays Off 360 Local Staff at U.S. Embassy Yemen

Posted: 1:22 am ET

 

The State Department suspended its embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and American staff were relocated out of the country  in February 2015. Embassy Sanaa had previously announced the suspension of all consular services until further notice on February 8, 2015.

A January 10 Travel Advisory is a Level 4 Do Not Travel citing terrorism, civil unrest, health, and armed conflict. “Terrorist groups continue to plot and conduct attacks in Yemen. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.” The Advisory notes that the U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Yemen.

On February 11, Reuters reported that the U.S. Government has laid off 360 local staff in Yemen. Ambassador Matthew Tueller has reportedly written to to the LE staff saying that “new US State Department regulations about suspended embassies meant he could no longer keep them on.”  A State Department official confirmed the lay-offs to Reuters, saying: “We are extremely grateful for the service of each and every one of these individuals and hope to work with them at some point in the future when we can safely resume operations in Yemen.”

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