The new year has begun with uncertainty over agency “reentry” plans, calling for bringing more teleworking federal employees into onsite work and for more often, that in many cases were scheduled to start early this month.
While only a few agencies have publicly released their plans, those that are available generally anticipate that managerial employees will make up most of the first stage, to be followed by phased-in increases in onsite work by other employees over several months. However, the recent surge in Coronavirus infections due to the omicron variant has raised questions about the potential for delaying those plans—much as they were delayed last fall due to the surge at that time in infections due to the delta variant.
Those questions have been largely unaddressed through the holiday season, although there have been some indications. For example, the SSA issued a statement saying that “You may have seen a proposed reentry date of January 3, 2022 in the draft reentry plan that we provided to our unions, or in the media. While some executives reentered on December 1, we have not set a reentry date for the rest of the agency.”
The Agriculture Department meanwhile has said that while it also started bringing in more high-level employees and appointees December 1, it has delayed plans to bring in more employees that were to begin this week, and that it would make a further announcement in mid-month.
General government-wide policy calls for agencies to provide “ample notice”—which it said “in many cases” would be at least 30 days—to individuals before their work arrangements are to change.
The Defense Department meanwhile has said that for the Pentagon and other headquarters buildings in the national capital area, “supervisors and managers should strongly encourage their workforce to maximize telework, where the mission permits, through the end of January 2022” and that “virtual meetings or seating with physical distancing will be maximized, where possible.”
Other steps ordered in a memo included reinforcing a general cap on building occupancy of 40 percent; limiting any exceptions to that cap to 60 percent; making food service areas unavailable for eating or gathering; and limiting visitors “to the minimum required for mission critical meetings.”
Tensions over the return to office issue also are arising in other ways. Pointing to the high rate of vaccinated employees, congressional Republicans have continued to press for more onsite working and more in-person service to the public, especially at the IRS and SSA. Most recently they have added complaints that agencies are not providing requested information about their current mixes of onsite vs. offsite work and about their long-term plans.
Also, the AFGE union has filed unfair labor practice complaints—a rare action for a union under the current administration, although common under the prior one—against the EEOC for “failing to bargain over ending maximum telework and requiring employees to return to office worksites.”