Telework approach defended by agency leaders amid Republican pressure
Federal HR officials said, contrary to GOP lawmakers’ concerns, agencies monitor employees’ productivity while working remotely and ensure workers are not paid the improper amount in locality pay.
HR officials from four federal agencies on Thursday defended the Biden administration’s approach to telework and remote work before a House panel, stressing that management periodically monitors employees’ productivity and that workplace flexibilities are a necessary tool to recruit workers.
The House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s subcommittee on government operations and the federal workforce hosted a hearing probing federal agencies’ telework policies following the COVID-19 pandemic. Subcommittee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said this week’s witnesses made a “good faith” effort to respond to the panel’s information inquiries on telework and remote work, and that a second hearing with witnesses from agencies he described as less cooperative would be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Ever since retaking the house last January, House Republicans have pressured the Biden administration to cut back on telework, citing difficulties helping constituents navigate service delivery backlogs that cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the administration has defended its approach to workplace flexibilities and chalked the backlogs up to a combination of complications from the pandemic and understaffed agencies struggling to keep up with demand, this fall agencies are expected to “substantially increase meaningful in person work,” according to the Office of Management and Budget and White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients.
HR leaders from the Homeland Security Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission all sought to rebuff the narrative promulgated by some GOP lawmakers, most recently Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that federal workers are taking advantage of telework and remote working arrangements to by either slacking off on the job or gaming the system to receive more locality pay each paycheck than they’re entitled to.
“The important part isn’t whether an employee is teleworking or not—I just want to know whether they’re working,” said Randolph “Tex” Alles, deputy undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department. “So we apply metrics across different lines of business to measure the performance of employees, and if they’re not performing, we hold them accountable either through suspensions and other discipline or eventually through removals. I think a prime concern, and one that I agree with, is: are we getting the dollars we pay for out of that employee or not? As a taxpayer myself, I want to make sure we’re getting that.”
“Similar to DHS, we have an attendance monitoring system, and every pay period employees have to attest to how much time they worked and where they worked, and supervisors need to verify and validate that,” said Karen Marrongelle, the National Science Foundation’s chief operating officer. “Prior to being allowed to telework, they need training, because it’s a privilege, not a right, so we have training both for employees and for supervisors. And similarly to DHS, we have metrics on that, and if there are problems with time and attendance, we can take disciplinary action.”
Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., asked each of the HR officials whether they had data regarding the number of federal workers at their agencies that have relocated out of the Washington, D.C., area during or after the pandemic, as well as whether any of those employees’ payroll information was updated to ensure they were not being paid an improperly high amount of locality pay. Although the officials didn’t have data on how many employees had moved, they confirmed that the agency has adjusted people’s locality pay to reflect where they currently live or work.
Rep. Chuck Edwards, R-N.C., questioned how agencies could ensure employees were not distracted by television or household chores whilst working remotely.
“I know my own tendencies—I can get lost walking the dog, or the TV’s on and I get caught up in that . . . At work, there’s a possibility that somebody’s looking over their shoulder, so they can know if that employee is on Facebook or watching cat videos or dealing with email or working on a spreadsheet,” he said. “What assurances do you have that folks are totally engaged in their work when they’re at home and not distracted by so many other extraneous activities?”
Alles noted that the question of distractions is a double-edged sword.
“To me, time present is not necessarily work,” he said. “They can be at a desk in the office and not accomplishing their work, and they can be at home and not accomplishing their work, so I want to measure what they’re doing, and we do that. A couple of examples: our obligation rates for the money that Congress generously provides us stays high, in the high 99% range, and our contract spending has risen across the pandemic from $18 billion in fiscal 2018 to $22 billion in fiscal 2023. And our FOIA [processing] has risen from 392,020 in fiscal 2018 to 535,000 in fiscal 2023. So I’m using different metrics and I can see the performance.”
Alles also said that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is on track to increase its completion rate of employment authorization documents by 15% this year, while the agency is also projected to process more than 1 million naturalization applications. Marrongelle touted similar improvements to productivity, as in 2021 NSF processed the most proposals it ever had.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Executive Director for Operations Dan Dorman acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his agency’s ability to perform inspections of facilities like nuclear power plants, but he stressed that none of those hiccups were caused by the government’s “maximum telework” posture.
“They were impacted, but not by our telework policies,” he said. “During the height of the pandemic, we worked carefully to manage the risk to inspectors, as well as to the control room operators and other plant staff to make sure we weren’t putting them at risk during the peaks of COVID in the community. But our telework policy did not impact our inspections.”
And Robert Gibbs, associate administrator for NASA’s Mission Support Directorate, highlighted how important continuing to offer programs like telework and remote work is to ensure that the federal government can hire qualified employees and compete with the private sector.
“We believe that flexibilities like telework and remote work, when managed appropriately, provide tremendous opportunities to remain competitive in the modern job market,” he said. “Our high-skilled and sought after technical workforce are increasingly asking for these benefits.”