U.S. Senator Joni Ernst has some strong feelings about federal telework.
In a Sept. 6 press release, for example, Ernst demanded that the “bubble bath bureaucrats” who began working remotely since early 2020 return to the office post-haste. And she has another request.
That same day, the Iowa senator spoke on the Senate floor, where she called for an investigation “of every major department and agency to determine the impact of telework on the delivery and response times of services, how much taxpayer money could be saved by consolidating unused office space, and what steps have been taken to adjust bureaucrats’ location-based salaries for those who have relocated and chosen to remain out of the office,” according to the aforementioned press statement.
Ernst has also claimed that federal employees receiving location-based pay and earning Washington, D.C. wages while living in a lower-cost area are committing “fraud,” and warned these workers that “we’re coming after you.”
(The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has developed locality pay tables that act as a guide for determining fair pay for federal teleworkers.)
Ernst is not the first Republican lawmaker to take aim at federal telework policies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In January, for example, House Oversight and Accountability Committee James Comer (R-Ky.) introduced a bill that would oblige federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic, primarily in-person work arrangements.
Comer and two of his Republican colleagues in Congress, Lauren Boebert from Colorado and Pete Sessions from Texas, reiterated that request in May, sending letters to 25 federal agencies requesting data and details on telework’s impact on government agencies’ ability to fulfill their missions, and have since sent follow-up communications to several of these same entities.
This particular trio still has questions regarding government telework. On Aug. 3l, Comer, Boebert and Sessions penned a letter to White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, referencing an Aug. 4 email in which Zients directed agency heads to “aggressively execute” the shift to increased in-person work in the coming months.
In their most recent missive, Comer, Boebert and Sessions said the directive “implies that the Biden administration’s widespread use of post-pandemic federal telework has resulted in reduced productivity, diminished customer service and worse overall returns for the American taxpayer.” Declaring the worst effects of COVID-19 to be “long behind us,” the lawmakers questioned the timing and motivation of the Biden administration’s push for increased in-person work, while calling for “a more formal explanation.”
Reconsidering Remote Options
Saying the American people deserve to understand the Biden administration’s post-pandemic telework policy and the thinking behind its “rapidly evolving telework posture,” Comer and colleagues sought responses to a number of questions. For example:
- What motivated the White House’s call for federal agencies to transition away from telework to more in-person work;
- Whether the committee’s previous communications, or any other congressional inquiries into post-pandemic federal telework, contributed to the administration’s “sudden push” to increase in-person work; and
- Whether the White House had become aware of diminished performance by federal employees under the Biden administration’s post-pandemic telework policy.
Government leaders at other levels are pushing agencies to increase in-office requirements as well. For example, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) has called for federal agencies to move away from the largely remote work model that many embraced during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an August 30 letter to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shalanda Young, COG followed up on these efforts with a nudge for OMB to increase the in-office presence of federal workers. Signed by elected officials representing 23 jurisdictions in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., the letter’s authors offered their own experiences as examples of how transitioning to in-office and hybrid work models could benefit government agencies and those they serve.
As PSHRA has noted in recent months, government employees have grown accustomed to having flexible work options, and many have resisted return-to-office efforts, saying that remote work has been beneficial for them and their agencies.
For instance, a recent study conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) found more than 70% of more than 3,100 federal workers saying they feel telework and remote work have improved productivity at their agency “a great deal.” All told, 97% of respondents felt that working remotely throughout the last three-plus years has either improved their organization’s productivity or had no effect on their output.
Ultimately, the pressure to bring government workers back to the office on a more regular basis continues to grow, whether its coming from Republican lawmakers or in the form of White House emails urging federal agencies to step up return-to-office efforts.
Against this backdrop, many agencies are wrestling with how to find the right balance of in-person and remote work for their agency. Wherever an agency winds up, in terms of in-office requirements versus flexible work options, AFGE National President Everett Kelly suggests taking employees’ work preferences into account.
“These civil servants show up every day to deliver government services to the American people—whether in a physical office or remotely,” Kelley said in a statement summarizing the aforementioned government employee survey
“As lawmakers, policymakers and agency leadership discuss the future of telework, the voices and concerns of rank-and-file federal employees deserve to be heard.”
29 September 2023
HR News Article