Members of Congress—mainly but not exclusively Republicans—are increasingly calling on the Biden administration to return more federal employees to their regular workplaces from the higher levels of telework that have been continuing since the pandemic, saying that services to the public are being degraded.
The Administration said recently that it is preparing a revised policy on the mix of telework and in-person work in light of trends such rising levels of vaccinations and the decrease in infections and deaths compared with several months ago.
While agencies have been bringing more employees back to the office at least for part of their time, they continue to operate under guidance issued in the early days of the administration stating that “unless it is physically impossible or poses a threat to critical national security interests, generally speaking, occupancy in federal workplaces should be no more than 25% of normal capacity during periods of significant or high community transmission,” of the virus.
Many of those urging broader recalls focus on agencies such as the IRS, VA and SSA that normally have substantial face-to-face contact with the public—but whose work does not involve the kind of safety, security and health care considerations that generally have kept federal employees in those fields at their regular duty stations.
For example, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said at a hearing that “the American people, I think, need access to some of these services in person. And we certainly find this back home in Ohio as we’re trying to help our veterans or trying to help folks with social security issues and other things. Telework works in some cases and doesn’t in others. We need to get people back to work, in my view, to help serve those constituents as the COVID-19 crisis continues to improve.”
At a separate hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Finance Committee, said that “the employees at SSA have worked hard to get payments out on time while undergoing big changes to the way the agency operates. Despite that, the reality is, social distancing and Social Security go together like water and oil . . . the level of service dipped when SSA’s old school approach no longer worked during the pandemic. Being cut off from face-to-face service is hardest on the people who rely the most on Social Security, including seniors and individuals with very modest incomes who may not have internet access.”
In one of several similar letters from Capitol Hill to OPM and OMB, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., said that congressional offices “have been flooded with complaints over access to much-needed government services including Veteran Affairs benefits, delayed IRS tax returns, and other government resources. As state and local governments have begun reopening across the country, our federal facilities remain largely shuttered and constituents have limited access to federal employees.” He further asked for an accounting of any backlogs that have built up over the last year and a description of how agencies plan to address them.
Recently, the IRS inspector general has said that despite partial reopening of offices that initially were closed, the agency’s “ability to provide adequate assistance to taxpayers continues to be affected by COVID-19.” SSA meanwhile sent a letter to Congress saying that the “abrupt changes to the way we do our work has caused bottlenecks in certain workloads and service deterioration beyond our control.”
Federal employee unions continue to advocate for maintaining high levels of telework. The AFGE union for example said in response to one letter calling for returning agencies to their pre-pandemic operations that “remote work works, and has allowed employees of key agencies like the Social Security Administration to continue to deliver essential services. Even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work must remain a foundational part of our federal government’s ability to remain flexible and effective.”