The era of maximized telework for federal employees may be finally coming to an end under new guidance issued this week by the Biden administration. However, we’ve heard this refrain before.
The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has issued new guidance for federal agencies to “help ensure that agency decisions about their work environments continually improve their organization’s health and performance, including substantially increasing in-person work.” (emphasis added)
Telework isn’t completely going away, and what OMB said in its guidance is vague in terms of when federal employees will return to in-person work and to what extent. OMB deputy director for management Jason Miller wrote in a blog post:
…the guidance we are releasing today directs agencies to refresh their Work Environment plans and policies—with the general expectation that agency headquarters will continue to substantially increase in-person presence in the office—while also conducting regular assessments to determine what is working well, what is not, and what can be improved. Workplace flexibilities will continue to be an important tool for ensuring agencies are able to retain and compete for top talent in the marketplace. Because the Federal Government is a vast organization, there is no one-size-fits-all approach; however, as a whole, it is important to establish overarching goals and benchmarks for consistency.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently echoed the sentiment expressed by OMB on the benefits and utilization of telework. OPM director Kiran Ahuja said in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, “These benefits [telework] include increased productivity, higher employee engagement, lower employee attrition, expanded recruitment pools, and cost savings for both agencies and employees.”
She also said that oversight of the effectiveness of telework policies is necessary as well, adding, “The ability to deliver on agency mission should be at the forefront of any discussion about alternate work arrangements and will continue to be top of mind at OPM. To that end, OPM is undertaking multiple additional efforts to help agencies ensure that these policies are aligned to agency needs.”
Past Statements on Reducing Telework
The Biden administration has been saying for two years now that federal employees should begin dialing back telework.
In 2021, OMB issued a memo instructing federal agencies to begin preparations to bring federal employees back to work in the office in greater numbers. Noting that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was now over, the memo stated, “…the Administration is taking prudent steps to plan for an effective, orderly, and safe increased return of Federal employees and contractors to the physical workplace (“reentry”). Executive departments and agencies (agencies) must integrate their planning for reentry with their planning for post-reentry personnel policies and work environment.”
Additionally, in his State of the Union (SOTU) address a year ago, President Biden said it was time for federal employees to resume in-person work in greater numbers. He said, “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”
Then, a few months later in September 2022, Biden declared in an interview that “the pandemic is over.” He stated, “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s – but the pandemic is over.”
He also said in February that he plans to terminate the state of emergency for the pandemic on May 11, 2023.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Despite these numerous past statements, telework has seen little if any reduction. One would think that federal employees were back to working primarily in their offices now at levels akin to what was done before the pandemic given all of these statements from the Biden administration. However, as of the time of this writing, the operating status on the Office of Personnel Management is “Open with Maximum Telework Flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, pursuant to direction from agency heads.”
The number of federal employees teleworking during the pandemic surged, even during periods when the administration began saying that agencies should start reducing telework. OPM stated that during fiscal year 2021, 94% of the federal employees eligible for telework had participated, a 4% increase over FY 2020.
The 2022 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey indicated that the number of federal employees teleworking had increased over the previous year. 42% of respondents said that they utilized telework at least one or two days per week, 25% of whom said they teleworked at least 3 days per week.
As recently as this year, businesses in Washington, DC have expressed concerns about the lack of federal employees in the downtown area and the negative toll it was taking on their businesses.
DC mayor Muriel Bowser even called out the Biden administration during her swearing-in ceremony over the mixed signals being sent about returning federal employees to work in their offices when she said, “We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses and by any user willing to revitalize it.”
Lawmakers’ Frustration Boils Over
Some members of Congress have become frustrated at what they believed to be empty promises from the Biden administration about reducing telework for federal employees. It became more apparent after Republicans took over the majority in the House of Representatives last January.
A month after the president’s SOTU address, Republican lawmakers sent a letter to OPM and the General Services Administration asking questions about the apparent discrepancy in what the Biden administration was saying and doing with respect to telework.
“Are the vast majority of federal workers returning to their offices or are they not?” asked the letter. It noted that despite the president’s comments, “these pronouncements are not reflected in the number of employees working on premises at the departments and agencies” and that OPM had stated that the federal government was transitioning to a hybrid work environment.
Legislation has been introduced following these frustrations to slash telework benefits for federal employees, the most notable of which passed the House recently. The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP) Act (H.R. 139) would reduce the amount of telework currently being enjoyed by federal workers to the pre-COVID telework policy that was last in place on December 31, 2019.
Congressman James Comer (R-KY), the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement about the bill:
…it’s time for the federal workforce to get back to work in-person for the American people. 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.
The SHOW UP Act ensures our government shows up for the people we are here to serve, because American workers across the country show up every day. Federal employees should follow their example. I am pleased the House has passed this bill and urge the Senate to take it up without delay.
Other lawmakers are pressing the telework issue with agencies as well. One recent example came from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology expressing concerns about the high levels of telework at NASA and the apparent harm it was doing on the agency’s mission readiness.
The letter noted 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. It also cited a study that found that the greater numbers of federal employees teleworking at the agency contributed to a yearlong delay of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission.
In response to the new OMB guidance, Comer issued a statement in which he called the Biden administration’s policy on telework “don’t ask, don’t tell”:
House Republicans have pressured the Biden Administration to address the issue of prolonged pandemic-era telework and it is finally discussing it. However, OMB managed to issue a 19-page memo that shed virtually no light on when federal employees are returning to their offices – or under what conditions continued elevated levels of telework may be warranted. Based on today’s briefing with OMB, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the best way to characterize the Biden Administration’s telework policy. OMB isn’t asking agencies how many employees are currently working in-person and the agencies aren’t telling them. The OPM director also recently testified before the House Oversight Committee and repeatedly could not answer how many federal employees are working in-person.
Since the Biden Administration refuses to discover the number of federal employees teleworking, the Oversight Committee plans to do their work for them. We will soon contact federal agencies about how many federal workers continue pandemic-era telework. It’s essential the federal workforce get back to the workplace and provide better service to the American people.
Will the administration follow through on reducing federal employees’ telework benefits this time? That remains to be seen.