The fate of telework in government is still in flux with the advent of a new Congress and Republican-controlled House, which put forth a bill to require agencies to justify their remote work flexibilities if they want to keep them.
The retitled House Committee on Oversight and Accountability introduced the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act on Jan. 11 under the leadership of Chairman James Comer, R-Ky..
It’s not a complete ban on telework, but it would revert agencies to whatever telework policies they had in place in December 2019. The bill says agencies may not expand from that pre-pandemic level until they submit their telework plan to Congress with a certification by the director of the Office of Personnel Management that it would “have a substantial positive effect” and not be a cost burden.
“The federal government’s expansion of telework during the pandemic has delayed critical assistance to veterans, tax refunds, passport applications and other basic services,” Comer said in a statement. “The SHOW UP Act will require federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic telework policies so that employees will be in-person.”
The decision to allow continued telework would be predicated on agency reports detailing how telework impacted their missions. In particular, the legislation would make agencies dig into costs incurred by teleworking, whether as a result of maintaining underutilized offices or paying higher rates of locality pay to teleworking employees.
If a plan fails to get certified, the bill would allow agencies to submit subsequent documents until they meet the requirements.
Since pandemic-era restrictions loosened, Republicans have expressed concerns about long-term teleworking. Over the summer, the House Subcommittee on Government Operations questioned OPM leaders about a lack of communication and data on whether telework impeded public services.
OPM will begin its review of fiscal 2022 telework this month as part of a decade-long process. Federal Times previously reported that responses from agencies will be collected until February, and a final report will publish sometime later this year.
The newly proposed bill also stems from misgivings about agencies’ leadership being disbursed and having a “limited physical presence in Washington, D.C.,” according to a Jan. 11 letter penned by Comer to Robin Carnahan, the head of the General Services Administration.
Since 2021, OPM has maintained that — though not every federal job may be suitable for full-time telework — there is a case to be made for keeping flexibility alive.
Surveys of federal employees and testimony by federal leaders and policy experts suggested telework can help retain a workforce and attract new entrants. Proponents say it allows the government to compete in certain arenas of the job market to offset those in which it can’t, like pay.
Ultimately, OPM’s official telework guidance instructs agencies to decide for themselves how best to implement work flexibilities “based upon operational needs.”
Telework varied, even during the pandemic. A GAO report last year said several agencies reported that certain jobs were not portable, which necessitated an adjustment period to figure out how best to continue working safely.
In other instances, agency officials reported a variety of IT challenges at the onset of the pandemic. and though they took steps to try to mitigate these issues, it led to some customer service delays.
Agencies also noticed some employees were less engaged or found it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, employees and federal labor unions have said telework enables them to care for children, reduce commute times and minimize distractions in an office, all while being able to complete daily tasks.
The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Byron Donalds of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Michael Cloud of Texas and Pat Fallon of Texas.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.