“We still have a huge number of people from [Washington, D.C.] telecommuting or teleworking, and there’s no reason we should be doing that,” Ernst said.

“We still have a huge number of people from [Washington, D.C.] telecommuting or teleworking, and there’s no reason we should be doing that,” Ernst said. Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

'It is fraud, folks. It’s fraud': The latest in a string of Republican accusations against federal teleworkers

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has requested investigations at every major federal department and agency into how telework and remote work have impacted service delivery, and whether federal workers are improperly receiving locality pay.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, this week became the latest Republican lawmaker to take up the mantle of opposing expanded workplace flexibilities like telework and remote work at federal agencies, accusing federal workers of “fraud” without evidence.

“What really gets under my skin is that: how many of these federal employees, who get location-based pay and Washington, D.C., wages, who are teleworking from a lower cost area?” she said a press conference Wednesday after returning to the Capitol following the Senate’s five-week August recess. “It is fraud, folks. It’s fraud. So, you federal employees who are out there, we’re coming after you.”

Ernst said she has sent letters to each of the 24 inspectors general requesting investigations of major federal departments and agencies’ telework programs, including whether federal workers spend “the majority” of their work time in a less compensated locality pay area than they are being paid for, occupancy rates of agency headquarters, as well as if telework and remote work have had a negative impact on agency service delivery.

“Iowans are really frustrated with paying taxes to this federal government when they hear us talk about Washington, D.C., and how a number of our federal agency headquarters buildings are only 25% occupied," Ernst said. “Where are all of those workers? I know they’re still on the payroll, right? Is COVID over? Are we able to come to work safely? And yet, we still have a huge number of people from this city telecommuting or teleworking, and there’s no reason we should be doing that.”

Ernst’s complaints appear to be missing important points of context, however. First, her pressure on the administration to reduce telework comes on the cusp of a major initiative by the Office of Management and Budget and White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients to “aggressively” reduce telework and increase “meaningful in-person work” at federal agencies, particularly at agency headquarters buildings.

Additionally, the Office of Personnel Management has established guidelines for how to calculate the locality pay of federal workers participating in telework and remote work—teleworkers, who must commute to a traditional worksite at least twice per biweekly pay period, are granted locality pay based on the location of the traditional worksite, while remote workers, who are only expected to commute to a traditional worksite on a situational basis, are granted locality pay based on the location of their workstation, which in most instances is their home.

And federal workers commuting from “lower cost areas” has been a phenomenon for decades, reflected by the fact that one of the criteria for calculating the boundaries of locality pay areas is the commuting rate between localities. For instance, the locality pay area that includes Washington, D.C., stretches from the eastern shore of Maryland and portions of southern Pennsylvania to northern Virginia and a portion of West Virginia.

In Ernst’s letters to agency inspectors general, she cites issues the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office encountered with overseeing employees’ use of telework.

“A series of investigations by the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General found USPTO’s lax oversight and inadequate internal controls of telework has costs millions of dollars for unpaid work and contributed to a patent application backlog,” she wrote. “After a tipster called out a patent examiner who ‘never shows up to work’ and whose work is ‘garbage,’ it was determined the employee was paid $25,000 for 730 hours not worked. He was instead playing golf, shooting pool and going to happy hour.”

But that inspector general report was released in 2016, following a scandal that occurred in 2014. The USPTO reformed its program with greater internal controls, and received high marks for its efforts by the National Academy of Public Administration as early as 2015.