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Lawmakers Want to Know When Most Feds Will Be Working in Person Again

They’d also like to scrutinize the federal government’s real estate footprint. 

Two years after the massive shift to telework began for the COVID-19 pandemic, two top House Republicans want to know when most federal employees will return to their worksites. 

Reps. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Jody Hice, R-Ga., ranking member on the committee’s government operations panel, sent a letter to the heads of the Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration on Wednesday following the president’s remarks during the State of the Union on March 1, in which President Biden said the federal government would be leading the way on the return-to-office process, for those who were not able to telework. 

“Every day Americans wait for that return is another day they suffer underperforming, inefficient services from federal workers not at their offices,” wrote the lawmakers in the letter, shared with Government Executive ahead of its public release. “It is also another day taxpayer funds are wasted on unoccupied federal office space. The high cost of excess federal real property holdings has been a long-standing problem.” 

However, they said OPM’s guidance from November and information on its website puts emphasis on the expansion of permanent telework and remote work options and doesn’t reflect what Biden said during the State of the Union. “Are the vast majority of federal workers returning to their offices or are they not?,” wrote Comer and Hice. “If not, does the federal government need to maintain all the real property in its portfolio?” 

By April 13, they would like to know the date by which OPM anticipates most federal workers will be returned to work in person. The lawmakers would also like the following information from OPM and GSA: 

  • All documents and communications on agencies’ plans to return most of their workforces to official worksites;
  • All documents and communications on agencies’ plans to transition to hybrid work environments;
  • A list of all federal real property that GSA administers, and which have office space that is being used at less than full capacity; and, 
  • A list of the monthly costs for the federal government of owning, leasing and maintaining unused federal office space. 

There has been movement this past month on agencies working on their reentry plans. 

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Federation of Government Employees reached an agreement to begin bringing employees back to their worksites in May and maintain new telework and remote work policies. Also, the Defense Department issued a memo on March 16 about the reentry process for civilian employees currently on telework.

Some federal employees went back to their offices, at least part time, as early as mid-2020. A February 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office summarizes the telework levels at 24 major agencies pre-pandemic, March 2020 and through September. “Agencies’ telework postures during the pandemic varied based on agency mission, job location, and the type of work employees perform,” said GAO.

Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, noted during one of her confirmation hearings in February that the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force “puts out guidelines we expect all the agencies to work through, but we leave the actual decisions on operations to the agencies while providing some overarching guidance.” Many of these plans have been upended by the COVID-19 variants. Young added that at the time some agencies were trying to bring people back to the workplace, but noted that certain cadres of federal employees, such as Border Patrol agents, have never worked remotely. Many agency leaders have lauded their efforts to successfully shift to telework and carry out their missions.

Also, the president’s budget request for fiscal 2023, which he sent to Congress on Monday, says, “with the advent of increased telework and remote work, there is a need to consider how agency management processes, organizational structures, and resources support both the workforce and organizational and mission performance.” 

Furthermore, “additional analysis will need to inform how federal agencies manage support functions such as information technology systems and investments, agency real property, and the federal real estate footprint,” said the budget documents. “Investment to optimize the real property portfolio for a more agile workforce working in a more hybrid and distributed manner will limit rent expenditures in outyears and improve the portfolio’s mission effectiveness.” 

Government Executive asked GSA and OPM as well as Comer and Hice’s Democratic counterparts for comment on the letter, but they did not immediately respond for comment.