House Subcommittee on government operations and the federal workforce Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, held a second hearing Wednesday examining the role of post-pandemic telework for federal employees.

House Subcommittee on government operations and the federal workforce Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, held a second hearing Wednesday examining the role of post-pandemic telework for federal employees. ANDREW HARNIK / Getty Images

Debate over federal telework fumes in House subcommittee

Agency HR officials defended their approach to workplace flexibilities and highlighted budgetary issues as bigger drivers of poor customer service.

A House panel on Wednesday hosted another spirited hearing over the role of telework and remote work at federal agencies, with Democrats and agency officials extolling the practices’ impact in improving productivity to skeptical GOP lawmakers.

The House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s subcommittee on government operations and the federal workforce held its long-awaited second hearing on federal agencies’ “post-pandemic” telework policies. In September, the subcommittee heard testimony from HR leaders at agencies that made a “good faith effort” to comply with the panel’s information requests on telework, and Republican committee leaders suggested Wednesday’s hearing was designed to hear from agencies whose submissions were found wanting.

“It is difficult for me to understand why [these agencies’] responses looked like nothing more than them phoning it in,” said Subcommittee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas. “This is a serious effort by the subcommittee. It has produced questions across both sides of the aisle. Either these agencies simply do not know the answers to some or all of the questions asked, or perhaps they just don’t want to share it.”

Bob Leavitt, deputy assistant secretary of human resources and the chief human capital officer for the Health and Human Services Department, rejected the notion that widespread telework is hamstringing his department. He noted that many HHS employees worked on-site even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and argued that workplace flexibilities like telework and remote work are a significant reason the department ranks highly each year in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

“As we continue delivering on our mission, we pursue policies that deliver workplace flexibilities that balance in-office time needed to collaborate and build strong workplace culture with necessary flexibilities," he said. "I'm proud that we are consistently rated one of the best places to work among large federal agencies, and we strive to make a workplace that works for everyone and prioritizes employee wellbeing, engagement as well as our mission.”

Democrats on the committee defended agencies’ use of telework, arguing instead that insufficient funding—and constant upheaval due to repeated congressional flirtation with government shutdowns—are more directly responsible for service delivery challenges.

“I find it odd that we’re having a second hearing on telework and about concerns over agency productivity while teleworking, when this is one of the least productive sessions of Congress,” said Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa. “The dysfunction here is unprecedented. The claims against telework are unfounded and directly contradict what we’ve seen in the federal workforce. In the last hearing, we already heard how easily NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and [the Homeland Security Department] were able to maintain operations by transitioning to telework during the pandemic, reducing costs and saving billions in taxpayer money.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., asked witnesses to describe how the threat of an impending shutdown impacts agency productivity.

“Shutdown prep diverts resources needed to serve the public,” said Hank McKnelly, executive counselor to the Social Security commissioner. “If we spend one hour on shutdown preparations with each SSA employee, that would amount to 62,000 hours, or 30 work years, of lost productivity.”

“Any potential lapse hurts the department’s ability to deliver on its mission,” added Jeremy Pelter, deputy assistant secretary for administration at the Commerce Department. “The shutdown preparations aren’t, in my view, an effective or efficient use of our time.”

Tlaib suggested another cause of backlogs or otherwise headache-inducing experiences for Americans trying to obtain government services could be the high level of administrative burden imposed under the guise of preventing fraud.

“I can’t even imagine working in HHS or SSA, with complex cases where people have to appeal,” Tlaib said. “But the reason it’s so rigorous is because we keep passing bills to make it harder to apply for service, because Congress continues to think that people are out there trying to scheme the system. So when I look at this, we can show them studies [about telework’s effectiveness] over and over again, but at the end of the day, it’s our residents who come to us because of the other layers of bureaucracy we make them go through to actually get something they already paid into the system for.”

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., tried to press McKnelly on why the Social Security Administration continues to allow employees to telework when its backlog for disability determinations doubled during the pandemic.

“So SSA made an agreement that allows probationary employees, employees with minor disciplinary actions and trainees to telework,” she said. “Think about that. Employees who are on probation. Wouldn’t it make more sense for these workers on probation or who have had these disciplinary actions or trainees to work in the office to ensure their improvement or to monitor their behavior?”

The term “probationary employee” in the federal government refers to a new federal worker’s first year on the job, during which they have not yet earned full civil service protections. It does not refer to employees “on probation.”

“There is the authority to grant telework in those cases,” McKnelly said. “But what we learned out of the pandemic is that our field office workers and trainees, they did not feel connected to the mission or to the teams they were working with [during maximum telework], so when we had the opportunity, we [increased opportunities for in-person work].”

Boebert continued to question how the agency ensures that employees working from home are productive.

“We have systems to schedule, assign and track workloads, including for individual employees in many cases,” McKnelly said. “Additionally, our employees are required to be accessible to their supervisors, clients, colleagues and external parties for a variety of meetings. They are connected to the workplace whether they are in the office or at home.”

“Then why did the backlog increase from 41,000 [before the pandemic] to 107,000?” Boebert asked.

“Because we’ve been historically underfunded for a number of years now,” McKnelly said.

“I don’t think you’re underfunded,” Boebert scoffed. “You’re funded at Pelosi levels—at Democrat levels. We just continued that funding, at pandemic-level funding.”

“We’ve had an increase of 8 million beneficiaries over the last 10 years,” McKnelly said. “At the same time, we experienced our lowest staffing levels ever at the end of fiscal 2022. That’s just a math problem. If you have the workloads increasing and you don’t have the staff to take care of the workloads, you’ll have the backlogs you’re talking about.”