The U.S. Department of Interior defended its efforts to ramp up in-person work requirements for employees who have been teleworking since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as lawmakers in Congress question whether more should be done to get federal employees back into government office buildings.

“Here we are in 2024 and DOI remains mired in irrelevant and ineffective COVID-19 telework policies,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., chairman of a House Committee on Natural Resources oversight subcommittee, at a hearing Thursday. “The Department of Interior’s agencies are less productive and continue to fall behind on outstanding work affecting the delivery of services to all Americans.”

In September, the department first announced it was scaling back telework for managers and supervisors in Washington, D.C. Last month, Interior officials included all employees in that requirement.

To date, workers across the department’s eleven bureaus are working onsite 65% of the time, said Mark Green, chief human capital officer, in testimony before the panel.

“We’re not seeing any individual employee performance issues” due to telework, he said.

Interior has made tailored calls for other offices that need more in-person services, he said. For example, Bureau of Indian Affairs employees are onsite closer to 80% of the time. In August, there were reports of Native American tribal communities unable to get adequate services from teleworkers, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Currently, about half of the Interior’s workforce interfaces with the public on a regular basis. Meanwhile telework remains largely in place governmentwide.

Since the national emergency ended last year, the White House, congressional Republicans and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, have all pushed to repopulate federal offices with workers. Beginning late last summer, many large agencies began responding.

Within and among agencies, telework varies depending on the nature of the job and the level of public facing customer service. Green said that whether they’re teleworking or not, Interior employees “are working everyday to deliver for the American people.”

That’s been a point of debate between agencies, employees and Congress: does telework count for the purposes of productivity and engagement? Employees and their unions have said it does, and in some cases, telework has been shown to reap higher returns in the form of better employee retention and satisfaction.

Dawn Locke, director of strategic issues for GAO, said at the hearing that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service have reported that their applicant pools for new jobs widened thanks to telework offerings.

House Republicans countered that the Park Service’s ballooning maintenance backlog and recent watchdog reports of unmet deadlines for providing real estate services to tribal citizens are evidence of telework’s inefficiency.

This hearing was the latest of several called by House leaders to hear from selected agencies on their ongoing telework policies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration, the epartment of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce and U.S. Agency for International Development.

Shalanda Young, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management, declined invitations to testify or provide written statements at Thursday’s hearing, Gosar said.

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.

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