Fedweek

Pressure is building on the question of how soon and how widely to return federal employees from telework to their normal duty stations, with competing calls being made on the Biden administration.

The administration has said it is reviewing that issue in light of recent CDC guidance on mask wearing, social distancing and related issues, but has emphasized that for the present, policies on telework and limits on building occupancy remain in effect.

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In the latest of a series of similar letters from Republicans, the ranking GOP member of the House government operations subcommittee, Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, urged OPM to return the workforce “to the fullest possible degree to its normal places of work.”

“Prolonging arrangements taken in an exigent situation is not a permanent solution. Members of Congress from both parties have emphasized that the lack of face-to-face services during the pandemic has had real, negative impacts on veterans, Social Security beneficiaries, and others who need prompt, attentive service from public servants at federal agencies,” he wrote.

He added that “if fully remote work arrangements continue indefinitely into the future, the taxpayers would benefit from reassessing whether remote workers should be considered eligible for locality pay” which is based on official duty stations in higher-cost city areas even though many employees now are working from homes outside those areas. Several other Republican members of Congress have made similar comments at hearings or in letters to the administration.

In contrast, the chairman of that subcommittee, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., has told OPM that “I understand some may be pushing to return federal employees to physical offices as soon as possible. While I am hopeful that we are getting closer to that reality . . . we must ensure that administration officials are cautious and prudent when requiring federal employees and contractors to return to federal office buildings, while continuing our responsibility to meet agency missions.”

The parent Oversight and Reform Committee recently passed a measure sponsored by Connolly setting certain standards for agencies to meet when returning employees from telework—in the process rejecting an amendment Hice offered to effectively require a general return within two months.

The views are not completely partisan, however. The bipartisan leaders of the Oversight and Veterans Affairs Committees for example have cited limits on onsite employees at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis while calling on the Defense Department to help the National Archives and Records Administration deal with a growing backlog of requests for military records there.

“Since NARA implemented workplace restrictions last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the NPRC has been unable to process thousands of requests for veterans records,” many of which exist only in paper form and are needed for eligibility for health care, loans and other veterans benefits, their letter said.

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“The NPRC has been unable to process non-emergency requests for months. While the NPRC is taking a number of steps to rectify the service impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic . . . NPRC still expects it will take nearly two years to resolve the backlog,” they wrote.

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