A bipartisan group of senators has once again introduced legislation to keep as many federal employees as possible from returning to the office.

The Pandemic Federal Telework Act, introduced Aug. 10 by Sens. John Lankford, R-Okla., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., would require federal agencies to put all telework-approved employees on maximum telework status, while reevaluating those who are not approved to extend the opportunity to as many feds as possible. That status would remain in effect until the COVID-19 public health emergency declared by the secretary of Health and Human Services ended.

A bill released at the start of the pandemic by the same senators would have mandated similar policies.

Sinema noted in a news release on the bill that it was time for the government to set the example of keeping employees on telework during the pandemic.

“Last week, I chaired a subcommittee hearing to learn best practices and valuable insights from the private sector who have utilized telework both before and during the pandemic,” said Lankford in the news release.

“Their insight was incredibly valuable as the federal government continues to function with many federal employees in full-time telework status. I look forward to utilizing what we’ve learned and recommended to increase the availability and security of federal teleworking through this crisis and when we are finally past this crisis.”

The legislation would offer agency heads the flexibility to keep a telework-approved employee in the office if there is a “compelling reason” to keep them, but sets maximum telework as the default.

Provisions in the House-passed COVID relief bill would also require agencies to maximize telework and expand the number of employees that are authorized to telework, and the Senate legislation could be incorporated into a pandemic relief package as well.

“This is the best way to keep workers safe so they can continue providing vital services to the American people during this difficult time. I’m proud to join in this bipartisan effort with Senators Lankford and Sinema to ensure our federal agencies are operating safely and efficiently, and I will be pushing this provision in the next relief package,” said Van Hollen in the news release.

The Senate bill also sets the stage for widespread telework after the pandemic is over by requiring the executive branch to develop a plan for telework in the event of another public health emergency, enabling funds granted under the Technology Modernization Fund to be used for improving telework capabilities and requiring all managers to take training on how to manage teleworking employees within 180 days of the bill’s passage.

“The Pandemic Federal Telework Act will provide federal leaders with access to the training, autonomy and technology modernization funds to ensure our workforce is able to continue teleworking for as long as this disease spreads through our nation,” said Bob Corsi, interim president of the Senior Executives Association.

Many agencies have begun to return employees to the office under Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget guidance, but federal employee organizations have largely opposed such measures as hasty and without proper union consultation.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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