The latest attempt to return federal employees to in-person work in their agency offices comes from a Senate bill introduced last week.
The Return Employees To Understaffed Worksites to Reopen Now (RETURN) Act (S. 3672) would direct federal agencies to submit a comprehensive plan to resume in-person operations and address constituents’ concerns about federal government services.
Specifically, the legislation would:
- Direct federal agencies to submit to Congress and publish on their website a plan for the agency to resume in-person operations no later than 30 days after enactment of the legislation;
- Enable employees who can successfully achieve their duties outside their workstation to work remotely if agency policy permits;
- Require federal agencies to devise explicit guidelines for employees who handle sensitive or private information to ensure essential services can be provided;
- Require agencies to implement performance metrics to identify employees failing to fulfill duties;
- Require federal agencies to establish a contingency plan for an increase in COVID-19 transmission that would require employees to work remotely;
- Require agencies to submit plans to prepare for an event in which remote work would become necessary; and
- Require agencies to report the utilization of physical work spaces and recommend the termination of leases for underused spaces to the Administrator of General Services no later than 60 days after enactment.
The bill was introduced by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS). In a statement, he said, “Businesses have now reopened, children and teachers have returned to in-person learning, and health care and public safety workers continue to show up for work. Yet I continue to hear from constituents about a lack of responsiveness from federal agencies. It is now far past time to bring back our federal workers and deliver the service that the American people have been promised and expect of their government.”
Wicker and other co-sponsors of the bill cited the usual concerns that they and their constituents have had about languishing services from some federal agencies with the lack of in-person services during the pandemic as to why they believe more federal employees need to head back to their offices. A case backlog of over 200,000 at the Department of Veterans Affairs and delays in getting tax returns processed by the Internal Revenue Service were among the reasons cited.
Another bill introduced last week took an even more direct approach than the Senate bill. Congressman Andy Biggs (R-AZ) introduced the Return to Work Act which would roll the federal government’s telework policies back to what it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The majority of Americans have returned to work. There’s no excuse for federal agencies to continue a strict telework schedule for their employees,” said Biggs.
FedSmith readers, however, have said they still do not think it is time for federal agencies to resume in-person work for their employees. The majority of responses in our latest survey on COVID and telework indicated that federal employees not only do not generally feel safe working in an office environment, they also believe that they are able to successfully get their work done remotely in many cases.
Federal employee unions were also quick to pan the introduction of The RETURN Act. AFGE, for instance, said it would undermine collective bargaining agreements if it were to become law.
“It [The RETURN Act] would effectively end the limited collective bargaining rights that benefit both federal government agencies and workers,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “If Congress will dispense with federal workers’ union rights whenever legislators disagree with a particular aspect of a union contract, then Congress is telling American workers they should have no rights and their legal contracts are null and void.”
The Office of Personnel Management has taken the position of moving towards having greater use of telework where feasible. The agency recently said that it expects more federal employees will be telecommuting in the future and also recommended that federal agencies make greater use of telework when it updated its guide to telework in November.