New Bills Try Once More to Force Feds Back to Traditional Offices
Federal employee unions have blasted the latest round of Republican legislation, arguing the bills improperly infringe on their right to negotiate over working conditions.
Lawmakers have introduced a new round of bills aimed at making federal employees who have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic return to traditional work sites, but federal employee unions decried the measures as an assault on their collective bargaining rights.
Last week Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., introduced the Return to Work Act (H.R. 6703), which would require federal agencies to revert all of their telework policies to what the agency had in place on Dec. 31, 2019 -- before the pandemic hit the United States -- within 60 days. The agencies would then unilaterally overwrite any union contract provision with telework provisions that differ from what was in place at the end of 2019.
“The majority of Americans have returned to work,” Biggs said. “There’s no excuse for federal agencies to continue a strict telework schedule for their employees. By not coming to the office, federal agencies have created a backlog of service requests. This backlog has prevented many Americans, especially our veterans, from receiving the service and care they need.”
According to fiscal 2020 data from the Office of Personnel Management, at the height of the pandemic when the federal government assumed a “maximum telework” posture, only 45% of federal employees worked remotely, although that figure marks a significant uptick from previous years. And though many agencies continue to see large portions of their workforce working remotely, some have already set a target date this spring to start bringing federal workers back to traditional offices, albeit sometimes with greater regular telework flexibilities than before the pandemic.
In the other chamber, Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., introduced the Return Employees to Understaffed Worksites to Reopen Now Act (S. 3672) Thursday. That bill requires agencies to publish return-to-office plans within 30 days, although it provides greater flexibility to agencies to preserve telework as an option for federal employees who “can successfully achieve their duties outside their work station” and to adjust those plans if COVID-19 transmission flares up again.
But the bill similarly gives agencies the power to unilaterally change collective bargaining agreements to implement plans to return to traditional work sites by stating that the agency may “consult” with unions rather than negotiate with them.
Labor groups were quick to denounce the Senate plan, arguing that it could set wide-reaching consequences for federal sector collective bargaining.
“The problem with this bill is it sets a dangerous precedent that Congress can introduce workarounds to carve out union contracts and restrict collective bargaining,” said Randy Erwin, National Federation of Federal Employees. “Since the COVID pandemic began, NFFE has been working hand in hand with agency leaders to ensure employees can safely carry out the missions of their agencies. This bill undermines the White House’s efforts over the last year to create an empowered and safer federal workforce.”
American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley called the measure “colossally foolish and un-American.”
“If passed, this legislation would be a significant assault on federal agencies’ and workers’ union rights than any executive order signed by President Trump,” he said. “It would effectively end the limited collective bargaining rights that benefit both federal government agencies and workers. If Congress will dispense with federal workers’ union rights whenever legislators disagree with a particular aspect of a union contract, then Congress is telling American workers they should have no rights and their legal contracts are null and void.”