The National Treasury Employee’s Union filed a grievance alleging that the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Fiscal Service committed an unfair labor practice after it suddenly halted negotiations over a remote work pilot program.
NTEU, which represents 150,000 workers at Treasury and 33 other federal agencies and departments, was negotiating a remote work arrangement with the bureau. The union said BFS is no longer considering the remote pilot, and employees who had been full-time teleworking during the pandemic will return to the office and telework part time. A spokesperson for the agency said workers will report onsite in phases over the next several weeks.
“We expect to have all employees returned by the beginning of September while allowing maximum telework flexibilities wherever possible,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Under work rules set by the bureau, for each two-week pay period, telework is allowed for up to eight days with two days required in the office. Errick King, president of the BFS headquarters NTEU chapter, said that employees had a reasonable expectation that the remote work pilot program would be available by the original return-to-office date of July 5. Instead, talks with the union ended abruptly, he said.
“Literally, it was devastating,” said King. “... They came and snatched it.”
The union said it has formally requested that BFS resume negotiations over the pilot.
In response to the pandemic, the federal workforce went from 3% of employees teleworking every day to nearly 60%.
Two-thirds of frontline federal employees reported being more productive while working from home, according to a survey of NTEU members. King added that taking commutes out of the equation allowed employees to work uninterrupted until projects were done.
“There isn’t any proven fact that was presented to say that having this program would be counterproductive to the mission and goal of the agency,” he said.
Per the agreement between NTEU and BFS, employees will have additional flexibilities during the first 30 days of the return process to help with the transition, according to NTEU National President Tony Reardon.
“While many employees will continue under their approved telework agreements, NTEU and the employees we represent are dissatisfied with the agency’s decision to abandon plans for a remote work pilot program,” he said in a statement.
Advocating for workplace flexibility, including telework and remote work, was a priority for NTEU even before the pandemic shuttered offices in 2020. In 1996, the union successfully negotiated a telework agreement for IRS employees, which has been honored in all subsequent contracts.
The union also represents staff at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, where more than 85% of trademark attorneys at the agency participate in telework.
The pandemic then made an even stronger case for the practice, NTEU said.
“First and foremost, telework saved lives. Coronavirus would have devastated the federal workforce even more if agencies hadn’t closed buildings and sent employees home with laptops,” said Reardon last April. “But more than one year into this crisis, we can draw another important conclusion about telework: it works.”
In other agencies, implementation of telework programs has been mixed, the union has reported. Reardon addressed attitudes by federal managers toward remote work in the House Subcommittee on Government Operations Committee on Oversight and Reform in 2021. Despite participation in telework across the federal government, Reardon said in his statement that serious issues remained with management resistance.
King said that might also be the reason behind reversing course on remote work negotiations at top levels of BFS, which operates the federal government’s collections and deposit systems.
A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found 62% of supervisors believe full-time remote work is detrimental to employees’ career objectives and 72% say they would prefer all of their subordinates to be working in the office.
Legislation to accommodate telework by government workers is circulating on Capitol Hill, even as workers return to offices. Last month, NTEU supported a House bill that would require agencies to quantify and report on the cost savings incurred through increased telework.
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.