The Telework Reform Act (S. 3015), was introduced by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz.

The Telework Reform Act (S. 3015), was introduced by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. Rod Lamkey/Getty Images

As one telework reform measure advances, another is delayed

A measure that would codify remote work in the U.S. Code and improve telework data reporting advanced by a 9-2 margin in Senate committee, but consideration of another bill aimed at improving telework data was postponed.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday advanced legislation that would codify federal workers’ use of remote work in the U.S. Code, as well as establish stronger reporting and training requirements for telework and make it easier to hire military and law enforcement spouses into remote work jobs.

The Telework Reform Act (S. 3015), introduced by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., codifies the Office of Personnel Management’s administratively determined definition of telework and remote work—which defines telework as requiring workers to commute to a traditional worksite at least twice per pay period and remote work as a scenario when feds rarely need work from federal facilities—into law.

It also requires that agencies and employees renew their telework and remote work agreements on an annual basis, including a process by which workers and supervisors review whether employees’ duties and performance or the agency’s needs have changed. It also would require employees to undergo annual telework training. The bill also creates a bevy of new reporting requirements around the workplace flexibilities, including biannual surveys on their usage and an annual review of telework guidelines by the Office of Management and Budget.

And the bill grants federal agencies the ability to hire the spouses of military service members and federal law enforcement officers to remote work positions outside the competitive hiring process.

The measure passed without discussion by a 9-2 vote. Voting against the bill were Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Romney last week introduced legislation alongside Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., that would cap federal workers’ telework schedule at 40% of their work hours in a given pay period and would apparently ban remote work, except in cases involving a military or law enforcement spouse or if an agency determines that a job requires “highly specialized expertise,” frequent travel or is otherwise difficult to recruit for.

Committee leadership also had planned to advance additional legislation aimed at improving the federal government’s data collection on workplace flexibilities in the form of the Telework Transparency Act (S. 4043). Introduced by Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, the measure requires federal agencies publish their telework policies on their website, as well as establish automated systems to track employees’ utilization of telework and remote work, federal building occupancy data, as well as any effects on agency performance.

But the conversation devolved into Republican complaints about the workplace practice and dubious claims about the federal workforce as a whole after Romney proposed amending the bill to include a requirement that federal supervisors teleworking employees’ work output.

“My amendment calls simply for the supervisory staff [at federal agencies] to monitor those who are teleworking to make sure they are doing something,” Romney said. “It’s not saying what it has to be—it could be a call, or even just an email asking ‘What did you accomplish today?’ The idea of people teleworking and having no reporting or monitoring whatsoever doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Peters asked for Romney and he to work privately to ensure the amendment could include safeguards for employees “privacy and civil rights.” Paul then chimed in to support Romney’s amendment and express his displeasure with the use of telework in government.

“The government doesn’t have a good rep for getting the most out of their employees anyway without a profit motive or ability to fire employees,” Paul said. “So it’s very difficult to think that anyone who is working from home is actually going to do their job. In the finance industry, every minute of every day is monitored. They know how many phone calls employees make, and some of it is recorded . . . and they listen to every minute.”

Teleworking federal workers’ time and attendance is stringently monitored by their employing agencies, and federal employees in call centers are recorded similarly to their private sector counterparts.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., then announced that he opposes all forms of telework in public service.

“I want to make it clear that I am against teleworking from home,” he said. I’m against it overall at the government level because I don’t’ think there’s any way that these folks are accountable . . . There’s no accountability and [this amendment] doesn’t go far enough. It’s a shame, it’s a travesty, and it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., responded, arguing that her Republican colleagues were wrongfully impugning a workforce that in large measure dutifully serves Americans.

“I will say that day in and day out, workers for state, federal and local governments do their jobs well above and beyond the call of duty,” she said. “Not everybody does, but that’s true in the private sector too. Painting all public employees with this broad negative brush is unfortunate. As someone who has teleworked herself and was judged on the quality of my work and the outcome produced, I find it hard to believe that we have to micromanage accountability here.”

Peters ultimately postponed consideration of the bill so that he could find consensus with Romney on additional accountability language.