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GOP Bill Would Send Vaccinated Feds Back to Offices

Republican calls for agencies to resume in-person services clash with Biden administration plans to make telework more readily available to federal workers.

Republican lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would require federal agencies to recall teleworking  employees who are fully vaccinated to their traditional worksites at pre-pandemic levels, potentially setting up a conflict with officials who are planning to expand the availability of programs like telework and remote work after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

The Having Employees Return to Duty Act (S. 3095), introduced by Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and six other GOP senators, would require federal agencies to return all fully vaccinated federal employees to their traditional duty station within 60 days of the bill’s passage.

The bill provides an exemption to this policy for the Defense Department, and it allows agencies to deviate from the policy if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines that a region is experiencing “substantial” community spread of the virus or if an alternative policy “will not degrade the level of service that the agency provides to the public.”

Lummis cited complaints from constituents struggling to obtain services from federal agencies in Wyoming as the inspiration for her legislation.

“It’s long past time for federal workers to be back in the office helping the people of Wyoming, and constituents across the United States,” she said in a statement. “There is a huge casework backlog, and that is negatively impacting our veterans, our seniors, our business owners and American citizens . . . Americans across the country have been returning to in-person work, and the federal bureaucrats who work for them should do the same.”

Although most federal agencies have reported sustained productivity since the federal government adopted a maximum telework posture in response to the pandemic, some public-facing agencies have encountered issues adapting their traditionally in-person services to providing them virtually. The Social Security Administration recently reported that it has suspended rules requiring employees to examine original copies of sensitive identification documents after its inspector general reported that the agency was “overwhelmed” by unprocessed incoming mail.

But the bill, and Republicans’ ongoing push for federal employees to return to physical work sites, could conflict with the Biden administration’s plan to expand the availability of telework and remote work beyond the pandemic. Agencies have reported finding new efficiencies in the course of the maximum telework posture, as well as improved employee engagement and morale.

The Office of Personnel Management published preliminary guidance on the continued expansion of telework in July, and OPM Director Kiran Ahuja told Federal News Network last week that additional guidance on telework and remote work will be published “very soon.”

Lummis spokeswoman Abegail Cave told Government Executive that the senator exempted the Defense Department due to the “unique nature and needs of the military,” and said expanded telework may not be a good solution for public-facing federal employees.

“While telework might be a viable option for some positions, we are finding that those who handle casework don’t have access to the resources they need when they are trying to virtually address the issues Sen. Lummis’ constituents in Wyoming are facing,” Cave said. “Federal agencies, including but not limited to Veterans Affairs, Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, National Personnel Records and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices need to be open with in-person appointment availability to serve the American people effectively.”