Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, (left) and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Back to Work Act (S. 4266) on May 7.

Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, (left) and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Back to Work Act (S. 4266) on May 7. Aaron Schwartz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Senators’ latest telework legislation could imperil remote work

A new bill from Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would cap all telework at 40% of an employee’s work hours, potentially endangering the federal government’s nascent remote work program.

The latest bipartisan bill attempting to curb the use of telework in the federal government would require federal workers to spend at least 60% of their work hours on in-person work, though it could also ban remote work arrangements in most cases.

Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Back to Work Act (S. 4266) on Tuesday. The legislation limits telework usage to 40% of the work days in any given pay period, with exceptions in cases where the employee is a military or federal law enforcement spouse or if a federal position requires “highly specialized expertise,” frequent travel or difficult to recruit for.

Last week, Office of Management and Budget Director Jason Miller testified that the Biden administration’s goal is for “office workers” to commute to the office for half of their work hours in a given pay period.

The bill also would require each agency head to review and reauthorize each employee's telework agreement on an annual basis, and require agencies to both monitor employees’ work while they are teleworking and provide Congress with a report on teleworking employees’ productivity “and the potential negative effects of telework on productivity, morale, security vulnerabilities, or waste, fraud or abuse.”

“It has been nearly a year since President Biden formally ended COVID-19 public health emergency declarations, yet most of our federal office buildings remain empty -- wasting millions of taxpayer dollars every day,” Romney said in a statement. “Americans deserve to have a federal workforce that is both present and productive. Our bipartisan legislation would require federal employees to work in the office for a majority of the time, while still allowing reasonable flexibility for telework.”

Despite the exceptions for some jobs and for military and law enforcement spouses, the bill’s sweeping provisions also could bar federal agencies from employing remote work agreements, in which federal workers’ primary duty station is their home and there is no expectation that they regularly commute to a traditional work site. That’s because, unlike other proposed measures, like the Telework Reform Act, Romney and Manchin’s bill does not codify the Office of Personnel Management’s remote work definition before capping telework’s usage.

Federal officials have lauded remote work both as a way to improve the federal workforce’s geographic diversity as well as a key recruitment tool. HR managers have noted much larger applicant pools when a position is advertised as eligible for the working arrangement.

Manchin specifically targeted remote work as something that “hinders” productivity in the federal workplace in a statement endorsing the bill.

“Federal workers have a unique obligation to connect with the citizens they serve, and exclusively remote work hinders this essential collaboration,” he said. “Local businesses in West Virginia and across the country are also suffering from a lack of consumer traffic during work days, which is negatively impacting our local economies. I encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this commonsense legislation that brings our society closer to pre-pandemic normalcy.”