Anti-Telework Bill Makes Its Way to the Senate
The SHOW UP Act, which narrowly passed the House in February, requires federal agencies to revert to their telework policies prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A group of seven Republican senators last week introduced the Senate companion to a piece of House-passed legislation that would require federal agencies to revert to their pre-pandemic telework policies, a sign that the Biden administration’s recent efforts to ameliorate GOP criticism of the workplace flexibility were ineffective.
The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act (H.R. 139 and S. 1565) would require agencies to “reinstate and apply the telework policies, practices and levels . . . in effect on December 31, 2019” within 30 days of the bill’s enactment. If agencies want to expand telework beyond 2019 levels, they would have to submit an Office of Personnel Management-certified plan to Congress first.
The bill stemmed from congressional Republicans’ ire at a number of service backlogs at federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, which they attributed at least in part to federal employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats, federal employee groups and agency officials countered that those backlogs were the result of temporary challenges posed by the pandemic, such as social distancing requirements, and chronic understaffing, not telework. The House approved the legislation in February by a 221-206 vote.
In the intervening months, the Biden administration has taken multiple steps to scale back telework, coinciding with the end of the federal public health emergency declaration last week. In April, an Office of Management and Budget memo instructed agencies to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices” and develop new work environment plans reflecting this new ethos. The first iteration of those plans was due last weekend. The Office of Personnel Management also ended the use of “maximum telework” as part of the federal government’s operating status on May 11.
Those olive branches did not satisfy a group of seven Republican senators, led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. In a statement announcing the Senate version of the bill, she repeated the same contested arguments claiming telework is responsible for agency service backlogs.
“As the public health emergency officially ends in the United States, so should the pandemic-era telework policies for federal bureaucrats,” she said. “I regularly hear from Tennesseans struggling to get ahold of a federal agency because of the massive backlog created by employees not being in the workplace. It’s illogical that VA employees are able to work from a bubble bath, while organizations across the country have safely reopened.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., went further, accusing federal employees of indolence for working remotely.
“Executive agencies have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for laziness for too long,” he said. “Our public servants should be doing just that—serving the public. Our bill ensures they come back to the office to do the work American taxpayers expect from them.”
The legislation likely faces stiff resistance in the Senate, thanks to Democrats’ narrow control over the body and the 60-vote threshold to bypass a filibuster threat. However, such a logjam may not exist in the White House, as, unlike other Republican legislation in recent months, President Biden failed to issue a veto threat ahead of the House bill’s passage earlier this year.