Lawmakers questioned leaders from four federal agencies including NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about their telework policies during a House Oversight Committee hearing Thursday, asking how supervisors monitor employees’ productivity when they are permitted to work from home.
They leaders said they have several tools available, including mission-specific performance data, attendance records and the usual disciplines for underperforming employees that still apply to remote workers.
Republicans have been skeptical of widespread telework, saying calls from constituents show frustration with agencies that have had rising case backlogs, empty regional offices and unresponsive helplines.
“This is a problem,” said Alabama Republican Jim Palmer. “And we’ve heard reports of [Veterans Affairs] employees who are doing their work from a bubble bath. Are people going out and playing golf and playing pool and going to happy hour? I don’t think we can have the productivity that we need to have if you don’t show up for work.”
The director of the Office of Personnel Management and others said service issues are the largely result of other factors, like understaffing, and not remote work.
Unions and employees balked at the idea that telework means employees aren’t “showing up.” There has been a growing call, both from the White House and members of Congress, for agencies to reexamine their telework policies and pressure is growing to increase in-person work when possible. Concerns have risen about the ability to onboard new employees when everyone is remote and ensure that federal buildings are no less occupied than they were pre-pandemic because of continued telework.
Democrats on the committee distinguished that a regulated telework programs that are in place at the agencies who testified is not the same as employees merely electing to stay home, as some have insinuated.
“Telework is a structured program,” said Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly. “It’s not an informal ‘Oh, if you feel like not coming in today, no problem, we’ll call that telework.’ That’s not telework. In a structured program ... you’ve got to be qualified. It’s got to be reviewed. It’s got to be approved. Presumably, you’re also evaluated on productivity.”
Chief among concerns were whether agencies suffered a loss in productivity when 45% of all federal employees teleworked in fiscal year 2020, according to the OPM. The heads of the National Science Foundation, NASA, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security assured Congress they did not.
Karen Marrongelle, chief operating officer at NSF, said the number of research proposals evaluated by the 1,600-large workforce increased each year from 2019 to 2021, with a peak number of awards made in 2022.
“During this time, the NSF staff was able to consistently meet the increased proposal pressure while operating under a maximum telework posture,” she said, adding that since 2004, the agency has had telework.
Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services is on track this year to have a 15% higher completion rate on employment authorization documents, said Randolph “Tex” Alles, deputy undersecretary for management. The agency is also on track to log the highest number of naturalizations this year, he said.
Robert Gibbs, NASA’s associate administrator for mission support, also said the space agency has had longstanding telework policies in place that apply to a vast majority of the workforce.
“With only minor changes, NASA’s telework and remote policies remain the same today as they were in 2014,” he said. “If employee performance issues exist with any employee – no matter where they work – managers are expected to utilize performance tools and counseling to address those issues as they arise.”
Each agency head said that they have expectations that managers will deal with poor performers just as they always have. Marrongelle and others said there’s no evidence that telework means employees have been skirting the work.
Several agency leaders also pointed out that their not a “constituent-facing” agency, meaning employees don’t interface with members of the public in person in order to serve them.
Both sides seemed to find consensus on the idea that telework can serve a purpose in the post-pandemic federal workplace, though a one-size-fits-all likely does not work, and some agencies may be managing it better than others.
“I believe that telework can be helpful to agencies to help them carry out their mission,” said Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas. “It does not mean every single agency would necessarily have that same success.”
Sessions said he expects there to be another hearing to come examining agencies who have been less responsive to Congress’ requests for information about current telework policies.
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.