As cabinet leaders in the Biden administration have defended their post-pandemic telework policies before skeptical lawmakers, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she agreed with a senior Republican senator that those written into employee contracts at her department ought to be reviewed.

At a hearing on the fiscal year 2025 budget request for the Department of the Treasury on June 4, Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pointed out a recent watchdog report that showed IRS employees work in person about 38% of the time.

“I’m trying to reconcile the data that’s reported by the inspector general to the IRS’ goal of having its employees work half of their work days in the office,” she said.

In response, Yellen — who oversees a workforce of about 100,000 — said many employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements, so enforcing back-to-office rules requires agreement by the union. According to federal data, about three-quarters of the workforce is represented by a labor union.

That’s true for most federal agencies where changes in working conditions must be negotiated. Telework in particular has become a rallying point for labor leaders who say it has significantly improved retention, productivity and work-life balance. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have expressed frustration with what they say are largely empty federal office buildings paid for by taxpayers, and agencies’ “slow rolling” policies on bringing workers back following the pandemic.

Collins suggested that these contracts with telework provisions be “renegotiated with the taxpayers interests in mind,” and Yellen said she “agreed.”

In a comment on the exchange, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees, said its contract with the agency doesn’t expire for another three years, and in any case, there are already tens of thousands of IRS employees who don’t telework at all.

“Every time our contract comes up for renewal, both parties re-evaluate the program’s effectiveness and make adjustments accordingly,” said President Doreen Greenwald in a statement to Federal Times. “Telework is a program negotiated between NTEU and the IRS and is a proven benefit for recruiting and retaining skilled workers across the country. It has been in place at the IRS for decades.”

As of May 5, the IRS requires employees work in-person half of the time.

IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told lawmakers on the House Ways & Means Committee in February that the agency is “roughly in line with the governmentwide standard of 50%” in-office work.

Though Democrats in Congress have been generally more understanding of telework as a modern workplace fixture, the White House has also put pressure on department heads to recall their workers.

“Whether at the IRS or other federal agencies, the government should focus its resources on employees and how best to achieve agency mission not on simply filling buildings and offices to meet some subjective percentage,” Greenwald 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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