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The bill is in contrast to several sponsored by Republicans to essentially require agencies to return to telework policies in place before the pandemic began. Image: Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock.com

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has passed a bill that essentially would lock in the widened telework practices that agencies put in place due to the pandemic.

However, the committee split along partisan lines in passing the Democratic-sponsored bill (HR-5971) at a time when the telework program is in a state of flux. Many agencies have cut back on the number of employees allowed to telework and have limited the number of days of offsite work regularly allowed for those still eligible, raising questions about the program in the long run.

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The bill would prevent agencies from reducing telework below the levels as of the date of enactment unless they provided Congress and OPM with a justification for doing so; require agencies to set annual goals for the number and percent of employees participating in telework; require reporting on employees who requested telework but were denied; boost training of managers and supervisors on telework; and require agencies to regularly review and update their policies.

The measure also would set up a system of goal-setting and reporting on “cost savings achieved through, teleworking related to reduced absences, continuity of operations, reduced real estate and utility costs, and reduced community costs, among other cost savings measures.” Those are among the advantages cited by adherents of telework, although current reporting on teleworking is short on hard data.

At the same time, though, Republicans have sponsored several bills to in essence require agencies to return to telework policies in place before the pandemic began, on the assertion that productivity has suffered. One recently introduced bill, HR-7835, would impose that requirement pending reports from agencies on “how pandemic-era telework levels impacted their mission” and on how they plan to “avoid the adverse effects of remote work.”

During the committee voting, Republicans offered that bill as a substitute for the Democratic bill, pointing to customer service issues that arose as agencies such as the IRS, National Personnel Records Center and SSA cut back their employees’ onsite presence. However, they lost that bid, also along party lines.

There has been no comprehensive assessment of how increased telework has affected productivity. Many individual employees have said they are more productive with telework, and employee surveys have shown a link between telework and job satisfaction.

Differences over telework meanwhile are playing out even in relations between the administration and federal unions, which normally are generally in agreement on most issues. The AFGE union, for example, has numerous unfair labor practice complaints against the OPM and the EEOC over their return to office approaches, arguing that the agencies failed to fulfill their duty to bargain and are putting employee safety at risk.

The administration has left specifics largely in the hands of individual agencies under general guidance it issued last fall saying that agency policies should “reflect a new understanding about how telework has worked at their agencies” and that decisions should be based on the job functions “and not managerial preference per se.”

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