FedSmith Readers Still Say They Shouldn’t Be Working in Offices

Our readers said that federal employees still should not return to in-office work despite increasing calls from Congress for them to do so.

Our readers told us in our latest survey that they think federal employees should still not return to in-person work in agency offices despite growing calls from lawmakers to have federal employees resume in-office work.

Lawmakers Demanding Federal Employees Return to In-Office Work

One of the latest efforts to return federal employees to in-person work came from nearly 40 House lawmakers who sent a letter on January 28 to President Biden demanding employees at Federal agencies return to in-person work to ensure timely constituent services.

“We write to express concerns that federal agencies under your administration have not maintained adequate levels of in-person work, despite having early access to the COVID-19 vaccine, reasonable accommodations for those who may not be able to receive a vaccine, reconfigured office spaces to allow for social distancing, and the installation of various technologies to distance staff from in-person customers,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.

They went on to ask that the White House answer the following questions:

  1. How many agencies are fully staffed and in-person? Please list these agencies.
  2. Which agencies are partially staffed and in-person? Please list these agencies.
  3. Of agencies partially staffed, how many have greater than 50% teleworking?
  4. What is the total number of federal employees working remotely?
  5. Do these agencies have plans in place to return to in-person work?
  6. If not, what is impeding their return?

The common theme among Members of Congress making the demand that federal employees return to in-person work in greater numbers has been that their constituents are not getting the service they need from agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Social Security Administration without being able to go into government offices.

For example, Congressman Ben Cline (R-VA), one of the Congressmen who wrote the letter, cited backlogs at the IRS and VA as problems constituents are facing. In a statement, he said:

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies turning to remote work was a necessary precaution. However, as we’ve learned more about the virus and vaccines have become widely available, it’s time for federal employees to return to the office. The months-long backlog constituents are facing to get a tax return from the IRS, a passport from the State Department, or benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs – to name just a few examples – is unacceptable. I call on President Biden to resolve this situation immediately.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said his constituents have had problems dealing with SSA and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC):

Over the past several weeks, my constituents have reported that certain federal agency offices are nonresponsive. While these complaints are widespread across agencies, particular concern has been directed at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and local offices of the Social Security Administration (SSA). For example, constituents in Missouri are being met with a response from the NPRC that the agency is “servicing only urgent requests related to medical emergencies and burials” and that constituents should consider “delaying [their requests] until we are past this national emergency.” In addition, constituents have complained about long wait times for even phone appointments at SSA offices.

However, critics would point to the spread of the latest COVID variant (omicron) as evidence that working in an office may not be safe.

The Biden administration also has been a proponent of expanding telework in general, and the Office of Personnel Management recommended that federal agencies make greater use of telework when it updated its guide to telework in November.

Survey Responses

So what did FedSmith readers have to say about COVID and telework?

We asked you last summer what you thought about returning to in-person work, and it was clear at that time that most respondents did not want to. That has clearly not changed.

74% of respondents to our latest survey said that they think that federal employees who are currently teleworking to avoid COVID should not yet return to in-office work. 74% of respondents also said that they are currently teleworking to avoid COVID-19.

Vaccination Rates Among Respondents

Out of the 1,150 responses we received to the survey, nearly all respondents had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Only 7% of respondents said they had not received a vaccine, but 93% had at least one dose. The responses broke out as follows:

  • Received all required doses: 52%
  • Received all required doses and a booster: 40%
  • Received only partial required doses: 1%

96% of respondents said that they are considered in compliance with President Biden’s vaccine mandate. This closely aligns with the last data released by the White House on federal employee vaccination rates which showed an overall compliance rate across the federal workforce of 97% as of early December.

Even though the vaccine mandate has been temporarily blocked by a court, the White House said at the time the court’s injunction was issued that 98% of federal employees were in compliance with the vaccination mandate.

How Do Respondents Feel About Telework vs. Returning to the Office?

Despite most respondents being vaccinated against COVID, they made it clear that they do not feel safe about working in an office environment.

Respondents were asked to express their levels of agreement with various questions about returning to in-office work and telework in general.

The responses indicated an overall residual fear that is still present about working in offices, however, responses to these questions were more evenly split.

The first question, for instance, asked respondents if they feel physically safe working in an office, and the majority said they “disagree completely” (32%), but 22% said they “agree completely.”

Respondents also said they think more safety protocols are necessary in their offices to return to work. 47% said they “agree completely” that more safety procedures are necessary.

Similarly, a majority of respondents also said that they did not think their agencies could safely and effectively return employees to work in an office environment.

In relation to this question, most respondents said that their agencies had not issued any formal guidance to employees on returning to in-office work. 49% said their agencies hadn’t issued any guidance, 11% weren’t sure, and 39% said their agencies had issued formal guidance.

Another reason federal employees may prefer telework (besides not having to commute of course) is that, by and large, they think their job duties can be completed successfully when working remotely. The last 3 questions asked about telework in general and showed that a significant majority of respondents were in complete agreement that their job duties could be completed effectively, that federal employees were generally more productive when working at home, and that their agencies’ missions could be carried out effectively even with most of the employees on telework.

Disagree CompletelyNeutralAgree Completely
I feel physically safe to return to work in my agency’s offices32%21%15%10%22%
I am concerned about contracting COVID-19 if I work in an office environment17%9%10%15%49%
COVID has become more of a convenient reason for federal employees to not have to return to in-person work than a real physical threat44%15%12%8%21%
My agency can safely and effectively return its employees to work in our offices at this point37%21%15%9%18%
Additional safety protocols (i.e. cleaning, masks) are necessary in order for employees to return to work in agency offices13%7%17%16%47%
Federal employees are generally more productive when working remotely and/or via telework10%7%17%19%47%
My job duties can successfully be completed via telework8%6%9%11%66%
My agency’s mission can be successfully carried out with maximum telework flexibilities in place9%8%11%14%58%

Our thanks to everyone who took the time to share their feedback in our recent survey.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.