A House hearing on the future of the federal workforce has again underscored differences of opinion along party lines regarding the mix of telework vs. onsite work.
Biden administration officials used the hearing before the government operations subcommittee to again tout a vision of a hybrid arrangement for those eligible to telework, while noting that even at the height of telework in the early months of the pandemic, half of federal employees continued working at their regular duty stations every day.
OPM director Kiran Ahuja cited the value of flexibility in working arrangements as important to engagement of current employees and recruitment of new ones. “A key lesson from recent years is that workplace flexibilities such as telework, remote work, and hybrid work schedules help ensure federal operations continue in the face of disruptions and improve employee engagement and morale . . . I think we’ve learned that employees really do want to be able to have the flexibility to manage their personal responsibilities,” she said.
She and OMB deputy for management Jason Miller also said that such flexibility is now increasingly standard among private sector companies and that the government has to keep pace if it is going to compete to attract and retain employees. Ahuja added that even internally, the government already is seeing “agency-hopping based on where employees see a level of flexibility. We don’t want agencies to have to compete with each other for different employees within the federal government.”
The day before the hearing, OMB had issued guidance to agencies on assessing their needs for working space reflecting that approach. It told them to “reimagine their workplace approach informed by lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as nationwide workforce and workplace trends (e.g., hybrid work inclusive of onsite work, telework, alternative work schedules, online collaboration, and remote work policies and practices).”
However, Republicans led by ranking member Jody Hice of Georgia, again argued that telework has degraded customer service in general and has contributed to backlogs at agencies such as the IRS and SSA. He said there has been “no assessment of how telework impacted agency performance . . . It is a matter of good government to have a grasp on the real and potential impacts before making telework permanent. And how do we know OPM has the ability, or the intent, to monitor compliance with telework policies?”
He and other Republicans also raised the issue of teleworkers who are living outside higher-paying locality zones receiving the salary rates paid in those zones because their official duty sites are within them, even though they only rarely work at those sites.
Similar differences had emerged last month when the full Oversight and Reform Committee passed a Democratic-sponsored bill (HR-5971) that essentially would lock in widened telework practices, in the process rejecting a Republican bid to reimpose pre-pandemic levels. That bill has not advanced to a full House vote.
Meanwhile, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., chair of the subcommittee, has introduced (HR-8644) an updated version of a bill he previously offered to require that agencies have safety plans for onsite work during the period of a public health emergency such as the current pandemic. Those plans would have to address issues such as provision of personal protective equipment, testing, cleaning and occupancy limits. The bill also would require that employees be “made aware of expectations, procedures, and policies that can protect them,” he said.