The timing of potential changes to federal employee work arrangements as agencies turn toward a post-pandemic footing remains uncertain, even just ahead of a Friday deadline for agencies to produce draft plans for telework and other workplace operational policies.
The June memo from the administration telling the largest agencies to finish draft plans by July 9—and telling all agencies to finalize plans by July 19—states in several places that agencies are required to “satisfy applicable bargaining obligations.” Those obligations “may be addressed issue by issue for aspects of the agency’s overall plan for reentry and post-reentry.”
However, uncertainty remains over whether that will result in formal bargaining, less formal consultative talks, or a mix; formal negotiations commonly stretch out over a matter of months. Neither the administration nor the leading federal unions have addressed that question in detail.
Also largely unaddressed are the potential topics of such bargaining. Telework policies are certain to be among them—and could prove to be testy given the recent history of bargaining over that topic even though the current administration has committed to being more pro-union than the previous one. Other topics could include safety measures, alternative working schedules, contact tracing and more, also potentially difficult to resolve on an informal basis.
The memo adds that after bargaining, agencies are to “provide ample notice” to employees “who will be returning to the physical workplace or who will have altered work schedules.” That typically would be at least 30 days—although potentially less or more depending on agency needs or circumstances such as the need to change child care arrangements. The length of such notice periods might itself become a subject of bargaining.
Already, pressure is growing from members of Congress—especially Republicans but including some Democrats—to return more employees to their regular workplaces and for more days a week. They cite customer service concerns at public-facing agencies such as the SSA and IRS, while Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., the top Republican on the House government operations subcommittee, has asked the IGs of those two dozen agencies to review the impact of telework on productivity.
The AFGE union meanwhile said that in a survey of its members showed that 62 percent said telework had improved their productivity by “a lot” and by “a little” by another 17 percent, with just 4 percent saying it had declined. Those results are in line with a survey by the NTEU union of its membership as well as a survey of selected DoD employees by that department’s IG.
The AFGE added: “The results of this survey will guide our conversations with agencies as they evaluate current and future telework arrangements for a post-pandemic environment.”