Tension is growing over the months-long issue of allowing telework-eligible employees to continue working remotely vs. being recalled to the regular worksite, as some agencies are continuing recalls even while many state and local governments are maintaining pandemic-related restrictions or reimposing some previously lifted one due to growing numbers of Coronavirus cases.
The approach of the new school year has added to those tensions, which are playing out between federal employees and their agencies, and between congressional leaders on civil issues and the Trump administration. Many school systems have decided — and others are considering — to have only remote learning, or a mix of remote and in-person learning, at least at the outset and possibly for many months. The result is that many employees who have been teleworking are faced with potentially extended day time child care responsibilities.
While the government’s general policy is that telework is not to be used with a dependent requiring care in the home, many employees credit their agencies with having been flexible on that issue—for example by allowing combining telework with flexible work schedules and leave time. However, there is concern that such flexibility will not continue indefinitely, even though the additional strain on their home/work balance may be indefinite.
Separate groups of senators, all but a few of them Democrats, have urged the administration to allow all federal employees who can telework to continue to do so and have asked congressional leaders to write such a guarantee into law. “Plans to bring federal employees back into offices prematurely would threaten to erase the progress made against the coronavirus and increase community spread,” the latest letter said.
Several senators also expressed support for continued telework at a hearing last week where workplace experts testified about the benefits of telework, including the potential for upwards of $2 billion in savings to the government annually just in real estate costs.
Some members of both the Senate and House meanwhile have been pressing agencies to be more forthcoming about how they plan and carry out recalls and the IGs of several, including OPM, have announced they will review them. Also, a bill newly offered in the Senate (S-4347) would create employee-management task forces to address telework, safety and other workplace issues related to the pandemic.
Anecdotal evidence is emerging of teleworking employees becoming more productive and several agencies recently have touted their ability to quickly build up capacity. For example, in a press briefing last week, DoD officials touted a 10-fold increase in telework by its personnel—mainly civilian, but also including some military—to about 1 million from about 95,000.
However, the department meanwhile has recalled teleworking employees to many facilities, including most notably to the Pentagon and other national capital area buildings. Other agencies that have recalled, or reportedly are preparing to recall, more employees from telework include the EPA and State Department.