Another federal agency has come under question by lawmakers for permitting its employees to telework.

Last summer, the Department of Education urged workers to return to offices after many of them were sent home to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a year later, Republican lawmakers are displeased with the results.

“According to recent reports, U.S. Department of Education employees are still being allowed to work extensively from home, much as they did during the pandemic,” wrote Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in a letter obtained by Federal Times. “[The department’s] lax telework policies are especially concerning given its apparent inability to fulfill its statutory responsibilities.”

According to the letter, non-bargaining unit staff must work onsite five days per two-week pay period, up from four days earlier. The lawmakers said it’s unclear whether staff are working in person more than that.

“As Congress begins the process of working through fiscal year 2025 appropriations, we believe it is critical to determine your agency’s current telework policies in order to make informed decisions about [Education’s] budget,” they wrote.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic ended nearly a year ago, Republicans have argued that telework is bad for the taxpayer, citing watchdog reports of empty federal office buildings, staggering backlogs of Social Security claims and federal retirement applications, and concerns about managing remote workforce productivity from afar.

Just this week, conservative lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee interrogated the Office of Management and Budget over lingering telework, and they laid blame on unions for having influence over these policies.

“The administration often speaks of ‘empowering’ federal workers and their unions,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., committee chair. “Well, they seem to have some muscle. And it’s being flexed to resist the limited, belated attempts the administration has made to get government employees back to work.”

Unions, including the one representing federal employees at Education, have said they will meet reentry mandates with requests to negotiate when they violate the terms of a bargaining agreement or force a change in working conditions of affected members.

Though the White House told agencies to increase in-person work, lawmakers have said agencies are ignoring the directives, even though OMB Deputy Director Jason Miller testified that half of all federal workers are not even eligible for regular telework.

“Federal agencies are moving toward a posture where telework-eligible teams are working in-person at the office at least half of the time, on average,” he said. “This hybrid approach mirrors the approach adopted by the private sector, which was a key factor for agencies in determining their policies, as agencies must compete with the private sector for talent.”

The data backing up those decisions exists, but it’s not always comprehensive. News outlets, including Federal Times, have run reader surveys on the telework preferences of employees that show workers are willing to leave an agency if they’re called back to work.

Miller told lawmakers the administration has made strides in luring young people to government service; the number of workers under the age of 30 has increased by 13%.

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.

In Other News
Load More