Legislation introduced in the Senate would reduce telework benefits for federal employees.
Introduced by Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP) Act (S. 1565) is the companion legislation to the same bill that was recently passed in the House of Representatives. The House version of the bill was introduced by Congressman James Comer (R-KY).
The legislation would do the following:
- Federal agencies would be required to return to the pre-COVID telework policies that were in place on December 31, 2019 within 30 days of passage of the legislation.
- Agencies would also be required to complete and submit to Congress studies within six months detailing how pandemic-era telework levels impacted their missions—including adverse effects on customer service, network security, and costs for real property and locality pay.
- Federal agencies would be prevented from permanently expanding telework without submitting to Congress telework plans certified by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that detail how remote work policies will:
- Substantially improve agency mission-performance
- Substantially lower agency costs for real property and locality pay
- Ensure security for agency networks, data, and records
- Accelerate the dispersal of federal jobs nationwide and outside of Washington, D.C.
As of the end of fiscal year 2022, 944,936 full-time permanent federal employees out of 1,960,181 (48%) were eligible for telework according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.
According to the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results, 25% of respondents said that they telework 3 or more days per week, and 17% said they telework one or two days per week. 64% of respondents said that they were not required to be at their physical work locations 100% of the time which indicates that they engaged in at least some telework.
Also, 72% of FEVS respondents said that they did not have a remote work agreement before the pandemic. 58% of respondents said that some employees in their work units were physically present and some worked remotely.
Blackburn said in a statement:
As the public health emergency officially ends in the United States, so should the pandemic-era telework policies for federal bureaucrats. I regularly hear from Tennesseans struggling to get ahold of a federal agency because of the massive backlog created by employees not being in the workplace. It’s illogical that VA employees are able to work from a bubble bath, while organizations across the country have safely re-opened. The SHOW UP Act would help restore accountability and productivity within the federal government, and I urge the Senate to promptly join the House in passing it.
The “bubble bath” in her statement is referring to a story reported by WSB-TV in Atlanta about a federal employee at the VA who posted a photo of himself and his government-issued laptop on Instagram with the caption “my office for the next hour” while sitting in a bathtub. The employee is a team leader in scheduling for the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s community care office and was apparently bragging about his telework situation to the rest of the world.
“It’s almost as if this employee is making a mockery of all the veterans. I can sit here in my tub and relax, and you just have to wait,” one VA employee who saw the photo told the news outlet.
Republicans have already been pushing for over a year now to get federal employees back in agency offices, and a story like this just helps them make their case. The lawmakers who are making efforts to increase in-person work among the federal workforce have been hearing from constituents who have been experiencing difficulty getting services from federal agencies ever since the expanded telework policies have been in place. Blackburn obviously noticed the story and used it as fodder for her press release when introducing the bill.
OPM Finally Dropping Maximum Telework Flexibilities Status
The Office of Personnel Management announced recently that it is finally doing away with the COVID-19 governmentwide operating status that has adorned its website for the last three years or so now that President Biden has rescinded the COVID vaccine mandate for federal employees. It will be removed starting today, May 15, 2023.
It’s unlikely that it will cut into telework much though. OPM said, “Agencies should continue to strategically use telework and remote work policies in support of their workforce plans moving forward while capitalizing on the benefits of meaningful in-person work.”
The agency also said a couple of years ago it expects telework would be here to stay.
End of the COVID Vaccine Mandate for Federal Employees
Now that the Biden administration has formally ended the federal employee vaccine mandate, it will be interesting to see if that has any impact on telework.
The White House announced earlier this month that it would be ending the COVID vaccine mandate in conjunction with President Biden ending the COVID-19 national emergency at the end of the day on May 11, 2023.
It seems unlikely, however, that this will create much of a reduction in telework since both OPM and the Biden administration have generally been in favor of telework and remote work.
OPM director Kiran Ahuja said in testimony in March 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.”
Additionally, the Biden administration also issued a vague directive to expand in-person work while simultaneously touting the benefits of telework and remote work which gives agencies leeway in structuring their telework policies.
The administration has also said numerous times in the past that telework for federal employees would begin winding down but never did. In June 2021, for example, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced that federal agencies should begin preparing for bringing federal employees back to the office in greater numbers. However, according to OPM data, 94% of the federal employees eligible for telework participated during fiscal year 2021, a 4% increase over FY 2020.