The Senate passed an amendment to legislation under consideration this week designed to prevent the potential abuse of telework by federal employees.
Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) sponsored the amendment to the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (H.R. 4366). As of the time of this writing, the bill has passed the House and is under consideration in the Senate.
The amendment would require agencies funded by the legislation to report on the cost implications of the expanded telework policies in place for federal employees.
Among other things, the amendment scrutinizes how the physical locations of teleworking federal employees are impacting their locality pay rates. A federal employee, could, for instance, get paid at a higher locality pay rate by working in a region with a lower cost of living while working remotely for an agency that is in a higher locality pay area.
Consequently, the amendment specifically requires reporting on how many federal employees “perform the majority of their working hours in a locality pay area with a lower locality rate than the locality rate for the locality pay area in which the official worksite of the employee is located, but continue to receive the higher locality rate associated with the official worksite of the employee.”
Specifically, the amendment states that reports must contain the following:
- The number of federal employees of the agency or department who, based upon information technology login information, office swipe-ins, and other measurable and observable factors, perform the majority of their working hours in a locality pay area with a lower locality rate than the locality rate for the locality pay area in which the official worksite of the employee is located, but continue to receive the higher locality rate associated with the official worksite of the employee
- The cost savings that would be achieved by adjusting the locality rate for employees described in paragraph (1) to be the locality rate for the locality pay area in which the employees perform the majority of their working hours
- The actions the agency or department has taken to audit and adjust the locality rates for employees with a telework agreement to account for the location from which the employees perform the majority of their working hours
- As of the date of enactment of this Act, the actions the agency or department has taken to ensure oversight and quality control of remote work
- Any additional steps the agency or department is considering taking to improve oversight and quality control of remote work
- The typical daily onsite attendance in the office buildings of the agency or department, as a proportion of the total workforce of the agency or department
- Any guidance, initiatives, or other incentives in effect to entice the employees of the agency or department to return to working from the office buildings of the agency or department
- A description of the instances in which the agency or department has exercised the authority under paragraph (2) of section 531.605(d) of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations to waive the twice-in-a-pay-period standard under paragraph (1) of such section
- The number of exceptions to the exercises of authority described in paragraph (8) that have been revoked during each month beginning on or after July 1, 2021
- As of the date of enactment of this Act, the number of employees for whom an exception described in paragraph (8) remains in effect
- A discussion of the monetary and environmental cost of maintaining underutilized space for the agency or department, in terms of energy use and carbon emissions
- Any steps the agency or department is taking or planning to take on or before the date that is 30 days after the date of enactment of this Act to reduce underutilization of building and office space
- The impacts of telework on the delivery of services and response times, including any increase or decrease in backlogs relative to the backlog as of March 1, 2020
Among the reasons she cited for the amendment, Ernst said that thousands of calls at the Department of Veterans Affairs have gone unanswered, and despite President Biden saying in his State of the Union address last year that federal employees would resume in-person work, federal employee unions have been fighting efforts to return to in-person work. She said that a recent Office of Personnel Management survey indicated that only 1 in 3 federal employees are fully back in the office.
She also referenced cases of abuse of telework by some federal employees, such as the “bubble bath” incident involving an Atlanta area VA employee who posted a picture of himself with his laptop on social media during a conference call. Ernst added that the thousands of unanswered calls at the VA she mentioned were just in Atlanta.
Ernst also noted that with so many federal employees still heavily teleworking, it has led to a significant amount of empty federal office space carrying a substantial cost to taxpayers.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that 17 of the 24 federal agencies it analyzed were using 25% or less of their headquarters office space for 1 week in the first quarter of 2023. Even the agencies at the higher end of the spectrum used less than half of their office space (40-49%). The vacancies were being driven largely by federal employees being on expanded telework. The GAO report said that federal agencies spend about $5 billion a year leasing office space.
GAO recommended in the report that the Office of Management and Budget lead the development and use of benchmarks for measuring building utilization that account for greater levels of telework.
Ernst is one of several members of Congress who have been scrutinizing problems stemming from greater numbers of federal employees teleworking. She called for IG investigations of these same types of issues related to telework earlier this year. Other lawmakers have continued their investigations of telework as well as introduced legislation to slash telework benefits for federal employees.