Unions representing more than 900,000 federal workers are pushing back against President Joe Biden’s plan to bring back more in-person work for federal employees, citing contract terms and the benefits of a hybrid workforce.

Telework schedules are negotiated in government employment contracts and shouldn’t be altered without negotiations, according to the National Treasury Employees Union. The American Federation of Government Employees said the administration should consider the benefits of hybrid work before making changes.

“NTEU has negotiated contracts and agreements allowing eligible employees to continue on a part-time telework schedule after the end of the maximum telework status used during the pandemic,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a statement to Federal Times. “Thousands of frontline federal employees successfully performed on telework schedules for many years before the pandemic because agencies have long agreed that flexible scheduling is a viable option that does not hinder performance or services to citizens and creates work-life balance, reduces commuting costs and helps recruit and retain employees.”

“These contracts, bargained collectively at the agencies where we represent frontline employees, remain in effect,” he said. “Any changes to those agreements would have to be negotiated with NTEU.”

Biden has directed Cabinet officials to “aggressively execute” plans to reinstate in-person work for federal workers this fall, more than three years after the administration maximized telework policies amid the COVID pandemic. Axios first reported the stepped-up callback Friday, citing a memo from White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients.

Biden pledged in his State of the Union address that “the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person,” and the adminisration has followed followed by slowly transitioning to more in-person work. In April, instructions for agencies to end maximum telework and create plans to bring people back to the office were sent out by the Office of Management and Budget.

Ending maximum telework, which was employed during the pandemic to keep people healthy, resulted in some federal departments such as the U.S. Department of Education, decreasing telework for employees. Still, some agencies worked with unions to secure telework contracts.

Collective bargaining

AFGE, which represents federal workers across 900 local unions around the U.S., said hybrid work environments should be the goal the U.S. is aiming for.

“Whether working remotely or in-person, the 750,000 federal and DC government employees represented by AFGE have shown up every day to serve the American people during the COVID-19 pandemic,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. “Now that the federal public health emergency around COVID-19 is over, agencies should take advantage of the collective bargaining process and labor-management partnerships to design hybrid working arrangements that allow both for meaningful in-person as well as remote and telework options.”

Kelley said a hybrid work environment allows for a solid balance between workers’ unions and agencies and benefit the whole workforce as a result.

“Working in partnership with workers’ unions will help agencies balance competing interests and achieve a workable, long-term solution that builds strong culture, achieves our shared mission, and protects the productivity gains and benefits to recruitment and retention realized through expanding remote and telework options beyond pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

Republicans and some Democrats are stepping up pressure on administration to limit remote work. Lawmakers have introduced legislation to force federal employees to return to pre-pandemic levels of telework. That bill, the SHOW UP Act, has yet to pass the U.S. Senate, but agencies have already taken it upon themselves to call employees back to offices more frequently this summer. So far, telework is still being offered, just in a more limited capacity than it has been in the last two years.

A report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that out of the 24 federal agencies, 17 of them estimated that they used 25 percent or less of their headquarters buildings capacity.

“As we look towards the fall, and with the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, your agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work for your team,” Zients said in the memo, according to Axios. “This is a priority of the President - and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October.”

The White House did not respond to request to comment.

Georgina DiNardo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News and a recent graduate of American University, specializing in journalism, psychology, and photography in Washington, D.C.

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