A group of lawmakers said that the interests of federal employee unions are being put ahead of those of Americans in making decisions about when to fully reopen agency offices.
A group of 14 Congressmen are the latest lawmakers to call for federal employees to return to work in agency offices in greater numbers to better meet the needs of their constituents. In a letter to agency leaders, they called for an immediate and safe reopening of agency offices, especially for those that offer in-person services that cannot be replicated virtually.
“As you finalize reopening and staffing posture plans with individual Federal agencies this week, we request that you consider the impact that continued closure of many Federal offices to the public has on millions of Americans, particularly elderly and low-income Americans who rely on the in-person services offered, particularly at Social Security Administration (SSA) field offices, across the country, and urge you to prioritize the reopening of Federal offices in the interests of all Americans, not just those of unions,” said the lawmakers in their letter.
As countless constituents of ours have confirmed, the Federal government’s current service offerings simply cannot match those that were previously being provided in-person. If agency heads are required to bend to the whims of union bosses before reopening offices, as the Task Force appears to be requiring, our constituents, for example, will continue to be required to mail in vital documents ‐ such as birth certificates and drivers licenses ‐ to the SSA for an unknown period of time in order to access their Social Security benefits. Any further delays to reopening SSA field offices, aswell asother critical in-person services provided by the Federal government, will only worsen the state of the SSA benefits backlog and continue to result in real-life consequences for America’s most vulnerable individuals and families.
The letter cited the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force’s requirement that agencies must meet “all ‘collective bargaining obligations'” as an example of how “union whims remain an obstacle to the American people’s reasonable ability to seek benefits that they are entitled to under current law.”
The Congressmen cited in their letter the greater widespread use of COVID vaccines as well as businesses around the country returning to their normal operations as evidence that it’s time to get agencies back to normal staffing levels. They also pointed to the latest CDC guidelines which have lifted restrictions on wearing masks and maintaining physical distance from others for individuals who are fully vaccinated.
In addition to the problems cited in the letter regarding SSA, the backlog of applications for passports has recently surged to over 2 million, forcing many Americans to delay or cancel upcoming trips they had planned. Many of the delays are due to staffing shortages at the State Department from the pandemic.
Senator James Lankford (R-OK) highlighted the problem in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in which he asked the agency to make a series of suggested changes to help break the logjam of applications. Among Lankford’s recommendations were to reopen regional passport agencies to 100% capacity with all employees returning to work for the full workweek.
Other members of Congress might not be so quick to agree with the sentiment expressed in the recent letters.
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) recently reintroduced the Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act (S. 2343) which would require federal agencies to publish and communicate their COVID-19 safety plans in an effort to better protect federal employees.
Warner cited the rise of cases of the delta variant of COVID as evidence for the continued need of the legislation and additional safety precautions.
The legislation would require any agency workplace safety plans to include:
- Procedures for testing, contact-tracing, and vaccine administration for federal employees, along with other mitigation efforts, including cleaning protocols, implementation of occupancy limits, and efforts to ensure proper mask-wearing, social distancing, and individual hygiene at worksites.
- Efforts to protect employees who travel for their official duties or who work outside of federal office buildings.
- Safety and health requirements for visitors to federal facilities.
- Contingency options and workplace flexibilities for those at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus, or who live in a household with individuals at high-risk.
- Protocols for vaccination, including leave policies for individuals who experience severe side-effects as a result of vaccination.
- Efforts to ensure continuity of agency operations, including contingency plans should there be a surge in coronavirus cases.
- Applicable Inspector General Hotline information that employees can use to report instances when agencies do not follow the plan.
Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) also recently reintroduced companion legislation in the House.
The debate remains ongoing, and the latest calls to have federal employees return to in-office work in greater numbers are not the first and probably won’t be the last. How these agencies ultimately choose to respond remains to be seen.