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Congress increasingly wants federal employees back in their offices.
Lawmakers are ramping up their rhetoric and probes of federal workforce telework policies more than three years after the Covid-19 pandemic upended the culture of white-collar work in both the public and private sectors. There’s an increasing sense on Capitol Hill that federal agencies have lagged too far behind the private sector in having employees work mainly in person.
“You have bureaucrats that are doing bubble baths during their conference calls for work,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told reporters last week. “So you federal employees that are out there, we’re coming after you.”
Ernst is eyeing an amendment to spending bills to force agencies to provide details on the cost of telework. She also fired off requests to inspectors general at two dozen agencies last month seeking data on their remote work, building utilization, and potential taxpayer savings for slashing salaries of employees misusing locality pay.
House Republicans will lead a hearing Thursday morning to highlight agencies’ telework policy. A House Oversight and Accountability subcommittee will hear from administrators at the Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who have volunteered information on how often their workers are in offices.
“There’s a difference between not going to work and telework,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the panel chair. He said a second hearing in the offing “will more carefully look at” the effectiveness of agencies that haven’t responded to congressional requests for information about return-to-office policies.
Additionally, Republicans inserted language into the House’s Financial Services-General Government spending bill (H.R. 4664) that would defund any agency that doesn’t return to 2019 telework practices. Congress is negotiating a path forward on spending, with the goal of at least a stopgap funding measure ahead of the new fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), chair of the House Financial Services-General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, said it was “not acceptable” to allow federal employees to work from home while members of Congress are trying to get answers from them on behalf of their constituents.
“If we’re going to have a very liberal telework policy, then we don’t need all the federal workspace,” Womack said. “But it seems we have both.”
GOP lawmakers see the issue as the latest way to bash federal workers as part of the party’s orthodoxy to shrink the federal government.
House Republicans, joined by just three Democrats, voted in February to pass legislation (H.R. 139) requiring federal agencies to reinstate pre-pandemic policies and submit a plan to Congress when seeking to expand telework policies. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also ended the pandemic-era ability of House members to vote on the floor by proxy.
“There’s a lot of interest from Congress to get the federal workforce back into the office,” said Tonya Saunders, principal at Washington Premier Group and a lobbyist on federal workforce issues.
She pointed out the federal workforce itself faces obstacles, “making it a slower transition back,” including existing labor agreements, contractor work, and ongoing office space consolidation.
Democrats, who have generally been aligned with federal employee unions, have moved more cautiously. They don’t want to be seen as leaving federal offices vacant but aren’t ready to push a broad mandate.
The Office of Management and Budget issued a memo this spring saying federal workers should increase in-office work.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Financial Services-General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, doubted “a one-size-fits-all” solution would assure both productivity and accountability. In the meantime, he’s monitoring the private sector’s parallel efforts to bring workers back to the office.
Democrats representing the Washington, D.C., suburbs are eager to build up the the capital city’s downtown businesses with more foot traffic at the urging of the local government controlled by their party.
“Having people back in the office, I think it’s good for the quality of work and good for local communities,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowsercalled on the administration to bring “most federal workers back to the office most of the time” in her third inaugural address in January.
Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal and D.C. government employees, in a statement said agencies should bargain with labor “to design hybrid working arrangements that allow both for meaningful in-person as well as remote and telework options” that promote productivity and recruitment.
“Working in partnership with workers’ unions will help agencies balance competing interests and achieve a workable, long-term solution,” he said.
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company, advocated for federal employees to return to more frequent in-office work in an Aug. 1 op-ed in the Washington Post.)
— With assistance from Jack Fitzpatrick and Andrew Small.
To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org