Lawmakers Raise More Questions About Telework

Two letters from Republican lawmakers highlight the ongoing debate over telework policies at federal agencies.

Some Members of Congress are continuing to question the generous telework policies at some federal agencies despite calls from the White House to return federal employees to in-person work in greater numbers now that the COVID-19 pandemic has formally ended.

In a letter to Small Business Administration (SBA) Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman, Republicans on the House Committee on Small Business said that the SBA’s telework policies are having a detrimental impact on America’s small businesses.

“Nearly a year after the Biden Administration ended the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, the SBA is still not back to work. Data from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that the SBA’s headquarters is operating at a mere 10 percent capacity, placing it in the bottom quartile of office usage among Federal Agencies,” the Committee members wrote in their letter.

The GAO data cited by the letter are from a report released by Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) which showed that headquarters buildings of 24 federal agencies remain occupied at less than half of their capacity after the end of the pandemic. Concerns have also been raised about the costs associated with the federal government paying for largely unused office space.

The lawmakers noted in their letter that even though the SBA headquarters building is using a fraction of its office space because so many federal employees are teleworking, the agency’s FY 2025 budget request includes $42 million for rent which the lawmakers say is troubling.

They wrote, “This Committee is deeply troubled by the rationale behind such a substantial increase in funding over just two years. In your testimony during the Committee hearing, you stated, ‘[w]e have 50 percent occupancy on any given day,’ a dramatically different number than that of GAO. Even if that is true, leaving a multimillion dollar building empty between 50 and 90 percent of the time is unacceptable and a waste of taxpayer dollars. This is also inconsistent with what we witnessed with our own eyes on December 3, 2023, when we toured SBA and walked past rows and rows of empty desks.”

The letter went on to ask the SBA for the following information:

  • The action plan on returning to work that you submitted to the Office of Management and Budget at the request of White House Chief of Staff, Jeff Zients.
  • The average amount of days SBA employees spend in telework status in a pay period.
  • What percentage of employees spend entire pay periods in telework status.
  • The current number of permanent employees with the SBA’s Headquarters as their main
  • The percentage of applicable employees currently adhering to the guidance of five days a
    pay period in the office.
  • Why does the Small Business Administration need $42,000,000 for office space when the vast majority of its employees telework?
  • All communications and written documents regarding the Congressional visit that took
    place December 3, 2023.

“If your employees can show up to the office to protest, they can show up to the office to work.”

Another recent letter says there is a lot of irony behind a protest led by a local AFGE union in Boston at the Department of Labor.

Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Congressman Scott Franklin (R-FL) sent a letter to the Acting Department of Labor Secretary Julie Su in which they wrote, “…members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 948 showed up to the office… to protest for more telework.”

The lawmakers added, “Clearly, these employees know how much more effective they can be when they show up in person. We just wish they had the same level of dedication to serving Americans that they do to serving themselves.”

A local news report from WGBH covering the rally said it consisted of about 35 people. The article quoted Joe Oosterhout, a union steward with the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, who pointed out the benefits of telework. He said, “Telework has been such a positive for our work staff. One: work-life balance. But just more productivity, less time spent getting ready for work, in traffic, getting to work.”

The article said that the protest was in response to negotiations between AFGE and DOL over an email that Su sent in November 2023 that outlined plans for agency employees to work in the office at least five days over a two-week pay period. Negotiations had begun but the two parties had failed to reach a contract agreement.

Oosterhout told WGBH, “We’re just out here trying to preserve that memorandum of understanding. We’re willing to negotiate, make changes to it. But as long as it’s bargained in good faith.”

The letter from Ernst and Franklin goes on to ask DOL for answers to the following questions:

  • How much taxpayer-funded union time did representatives of AFGE Local 948 log with the Department of Labor (DOL) in the four weeks preceding their rally on March 19, 2024?
  • Were the DOL employees paid—either through taxpayer-funded union time reimbursements or otherwise—for their protest against returning to the office, which they staged at their office?
  • If so, what is the cost to the DOL including but not limited to labor and resources—of this protest?

The letter concludes by saying, “As White House Chief of Staff Zients said in January, agencies are still ‘not where they need to be’ on returning employees to the office. If your employees can show up to the office to protest, they can show up to the office to work.”

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.