The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is pressing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for answers about when and how it will reduce the amount of telework being used by federal employees working at the agency now that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Three Republicans on the Committee sent a letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson outlining concerns they have about expensive buildings sitting largely vacant and the agency’s mission readiness suffering due to so many agency employees continuing to telework despite COVID-19 posing less of a threat than it did at the outset of the pandemic.
The letter was sent by Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) along with Reps. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Jay Obernolte (R-CA). The text of the letter is included at the end of this article.
In the letter, the lawmakers note that only 31% of NASA employees reported for in-person work at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC on a day-to-day basis. They added, “We are concerned with the impact this is having on mission readiness as well as the costs associated with paying for buildings and other facilities that are not being used to their full potential.”
The letter further notes that President Biden declared last year that the pandemic is over and also called for federal employees to return to in-person work during his state of the union speech. Despite this, the Congressmen believe that NASA does not appear to have made much of an effort to telework.
“It’s no longer reasonable for federal employees in Washington, D.C., to continue to work remotely while leaving taxpayer-funded office buildings mostly vacant,” wrote the lawmakers in the letter.
The letter also outlines the details of a recent report done by an independent review board which concluded that a yearlong delay of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission was due at least in part to a lack of in-person work by agency employees. NASA concurred with the findings in the report.
Regarding suggestions to minimize remote and hybrid work as well as reestablish informal communications such as “walking the floor” and “drop-in discussions”, two things that require working in-person, the agency stated:
NASA concurs. The completion of Psyche requires increased simultaneous on-site presence to facilitate informal communications and mission success. As many organizations struggle with how best to balance onsite and offsite work following the post-COVID societal changes, the Psyche project manager will set project hybrid work policy, within the bounds of JPL telework policy, considering the need for in-person work during remaining phases of the project while also considering team morale and equity across the staff.
“While the need for in-person work differs between roles, this report highlights, and NASA agrees, that there is an intrinsic value to face-to-face communications,” states the letter.
The letter goes on to add, “Given President Biden’s declaration last September that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, NASA needs to explain when and how it plans to transition its workforce back to in-person status.”
House Legislative Efforts to Reduce Telework
The House of Representatives has not been shy about its efforts to cut back on federal employees’ use of telework since the Republican majority took over this year.
In February, the House passed legislation to reduce the expanded telework benefits currently being afforded to federal employees. The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP) Act (H.R. 139) would require that the federal government’s telework policy be returned to the pre-COVID telework policy that was last in place on December 31, 2019 and also would forbid expanding the telework policy, practices or levels until a plan is submitted to Congress about the effects of telework on federal agencies and productivity.
Supporters of the legislation cite languishing services to the American public as the impetus for the legislation. Congressman James Comer (R-KY), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said about the bill:
For years now, Americans have suffered because of the federal government’s detrimental pandemic-era telework policies. President Biden’s unnecessary expansion of telework has crippled the ability of agencies to get their jobs done and created backlogs. Seniors have experienced delays with the Social Security Administration, American taxpayers have struggled to get help from the IRS during tax filing season, and veterans have been unable to access their records to obtain care and benefits they have earned.
As noted previously, Biden said in the last state of the union address that it was time for federal employees to return to in-person work in greater numbers. Despite making that statement as well as declaring the COVID pandemic is now over, it’s unknown if he would sign the bill even if it were to get past the Senate.
At a press briefing last February, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked what the Biden administration’s position was on the bill. Her response offered little by way of actually answering the question. Part of her statement was:
…our view is that the agency decisions should be guided by a focus on delivering results for the American people. That’s how they should move forward, like other major employers and federal agencies are making those decisions based on their performance goals, not only to increase efficiency and effectiveness but also to remain competitive in the labor market.
So, we’re committed to working with anyone in Congress to continue strengthening federal agencies — we think that’s incredibly important — and the federal workforce in order to deliver on their missions and serve the American public.
That — that’s what we think the criteria should be.
Look, you know, we’ve explained our thinking, how the President sees this, and don’t have anything to share specifically on the SHOW UP Act. But we believe that, you know, there are ways that federal agencies should be able to track their performance and continue to — continue to deliver for the American people. And that’s how we think this is the most important way to move forward here.
Letter From House Committee to NASA About Reducing Telework
April 4, 2023
The Honorable Bill Nelson
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Dear Administrator Nelson:
According to information recently obtained by this Committee, in January of 2023, only 31% of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees reported for in-person work at your headquarters building in Washington, D.C., on a day-to-day basis. If accurate, this means that the vast majority of NASA headquarters employees remain on a mostly telework or remote working schedule more than one year after President Biden called for all federal agencies to return to in-person work. We are concerned with the impact this is having on mission readiness as well as the costs associated with paying for buildings and other facilities that are not being used to their full potential.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most federal agencies, including NASA, adopted remote work-from-home policies to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Since then, medical advancements have resulted in the availability of three vaccines and several medical therapeutics available to treat COVID-19. It’s no longer reasonable for federal employees in Washington, D.C., to continue to work remotely while leaving taxpayer-funded office buildings mostly vacant.
We know that the lack of in-person communications can lead to errors and delays. For example, a recently published report attributed the one-year delay of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission to, among other things, a lack of informal and impromptu communication among staff caused largely by remote work. The report, which was conducted by an independent review board stated, “[r]emote work conditions exacerbated the isolation of various teams, impeding team integration.” It further stated that in the past, personnel, “…relied on senior members of projects and technical line organizations ‘walking the floor,’ dropping in for conversations at office doorways, or chatting in the cafeteria.” And, “[w]ithout these informal communication mechanisms, contextual cues and situational awareness were lost. Team members working the floor found it difficult to report problems up the chain over Webex, especially when attendees kept their cameras off.” NASA concurred with these findings, writing that, “[t]he completion of Psyche requires increased simultaneous on-site presence to facilitate informal communications and mission success.” While the need for in-person work differs between roles, this report highlights, and NASA agrees, that there is an intrinsic value to face-to-face communications.
Given President Biden’s declaration last September that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, NASA needs to explain when and how it plans to transition its workforce back to in-person status. As a result, please respond to the following inquires by April 18, 2023.
- If President Biden instructed all federal agencies to return to in-person work, then why does NASA headquarters remain on a mostly telework or remote work basis?
- Please provide the average monthly occupancy rate for January, February, and March of 2019 and 2023 for all NASA centers and facilities.
- Certain positions at NASA may not require or benefit from in-person work. As a result, there may be a need to keep certain unique positions on a remote basis. Please provide an estimate for the number of positions currently at NASA which will likely remain on a remote basis as well as their titles and locations.
- Please provide the number of NASA headquarters employees who telework three or more days a week.
- Please provide a copy of the existing telework policy, including any forms employees must sign to be eligible for telework, as well as any criteria supervisors are using to adjudicate requests.
- Is the framework developed by NASA at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic still being followed?
Should you have any questions or concerns please contact Dario Camacho of the Committee’s Majority staff at (202) 225-6371. Thank you for your time and consideration regarding this important matter.