The Department of Education has joined several other agencies that are seeking to limit remote work in the coming months, while unions and employees are pushing back.

In a town hall on June 26, agency leaders announced they would make a decision in July pertaining to the telework policy and would review positions that were deemed remote-work eligible during the height of the pandemic, with a goal of increasing in-person work. Firm numbers on how many employees would have to return to the office and how often were not given.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the federal union representing 2,400 Department of Education workers, said it was not consulted on the proposed changes, nor was it able to voice concerns at the meeting, which was held in-person and online.

“We’ve made proposals already with the agency to roll over our telework policy because we’ve worked collaboratively with leadership to develop it November of 2021,” said Sheria Smith, a local union president.

The union said it had no way of providing input or during the town hall because 2,500 virtual participants weren’t able to view the Q&A segment. Per an email obtained by Federal Times from the department, that was due to a technical issue.

Smith added that the decision to limit work flexibilities is a “180-[degree] change” from what the union negotiated.

As codified in the union’s October interim collective bargaining agreement, employees can telework for eight days per 10-day pay period, telework situationally, or work 100% remotely. Smith said the majority of employees worked remotely.

She added that employees have not been given a reason for the changes, though leaders during the town hall claimed the decision to increase mandatory in-person work was not about productivity.

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights, which ensures public education systems follow anti-discrimination laws, resolved the second-highest number of complaints in its history last year, according to the annual report. The agency is also taking on student loan forgiveness for a higher number of qualifying public servants in this administration.

A Department of Education spokesperson did not comment on how the agency was determining future schedules, only that leaders are “finalizing our work environment plans with the goal of improving organizational health and organizational performance.”

Smith also said remote work allows the agency to save on building costs and maintenance.

In 2020, the department’s buildings were evaluated for space reductions and eco-friendly renovations at the direction of the Office of Management and Budget. The third floor of the Lyndon Baines Johnson headquarters building in Washington, D.C., is receiving updates to house more staff, with the goal of consolidating the agency’s three buildings by 2025.

“To execute the rest of this move successfully, the department needs to continue to invest in this project on an annual basis,” the agency’s fiscal 2022 budget request said.

What happens next?

Smith said her union has heard from employees who will consider leaving their positions for those eligible for more remote work or for the private sector, where they can afford to commute more often, hire child care and live in the metropolitan areas where they work.

“[The agency] hired hundreds of people during the pandemic — all they know is remote,” Smith said. “It’s kind of a bait and switch to force these people back into offices they were never in in the first place.”

Other agencies are undergoing similar transition plans.

Federal Times reported last week that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will require employees to be on site three days per week next year. The Department of Veterans Affairs also said it will require headquarters staff to work in the office come fall.

And employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were told they will need to work in the office a minimum of four days per pay period, Federal News Network reported in June.

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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