Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11 a.m. ET on July 27 to include updated comment from the Department of Justice.

A group of 1,500 employees at the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the agency on Tuesday for its plans to increase in-person work later this summer, a decision they said is hasty and could harm recruitment and retention.

In a letter from the DOJ Gender Equality Network, or DOJ Gen, the group said members raised concerns after receiving a June 27 email with a survey asking how often employees worked remotely and what aspects of the job might be improved by increased in-office work. The also voiced concerns that the survey’s deadline fell on the July 4 holiday weekend, leaving less time for feedback.

“Many expressed dismay that the survey asked nothing about how mandating substantial in-person return to office might negatively impact the work productivity of employees, including those who are parents or caregivers or who are employees with disabilities,” wrote Colleen Phillips, the group’s acting president.

One employee, who submitted anonymous comments in the letter and uses a wheelchair, said leaving accommodations behind at their home office will take away from an in-office experience.

“When I am at the office, I am unable to work late like I almost always do while teleworking, because I need to leave whenever someone is available to pick me up,” they said.

If the Department of Justice rolls back telework, it will join several other federal agencies that so far have called employees back to offices. Several have cited the memo from the Office of Management and Budget from April prodding agencies to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices.”

Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesperson for the department, said the agency is aware of the letter and will take all feedback into consideration.

“The Department’s telework policy will continue to permit reasonable accommodations, as required by law, and consideration of individual employees’ circumstances,” he said in an emailed statement.

Agencies have interpreted how that translates into policy for themselves, with some offering fewer remote days than others, creating what employees say is a stressful environment of inconsistent and unpredictable changes.

Hornbuckle also said the agency’s Justice Management Division is leading a team of senior Department officials to propose revisions to existing telework policies that would comply with OMB’s directive.

“As part of this process, the team has considered feedback from components and offices across the Department, including feedback generated through an all-employee survey as well as earlier component listening sessions on telework and remote work,” he said in an emailed statement.

DOJ Gen echoed the sentiments of other employees who have vouched for improved productivity, cost savings from reduced commutes and childcare needs, and more amenable working conditions for those with mobility limitations or disabilities.

“Those caregiving obligations will not dissipate should the department issue a more prescriptive policy; rather, a mandated increase in in-person office time will re-introduce logistical complications and truncate work productivity gains that resulted from reduced commuting time and the absence of in-office distractions,” the letter said.

Employees also questioned whether an in-office presence was necessary when it seemed likely that video and phone calls would remain common practice.

One employee wrote that not having to commute gives them back 90 minutes each day that they devote to minor tasks while spending the rest of the day on more substantive work.

Employees governmentwide have also indicated that remote work arrangements they were offered before and during the pandemic attracted them to the job, and that any kind of revocation could prompt some workers to seek employment elsewhere.

And more experienced employees who are maxing out pay on the General Schedule say benefits like telework entice them to stay in the job.

There’s little comprehensive data to assess that governmentwide, but Phillips said anecdotally, members have said they will consider looking for different work if telework becomes more restricted.

Any decision to make that happen must be backed up and weighed against any potential negative effects to recruitment, retention and productivity, the group said.

The letter also cited a McKinsey & Company study that found the third-most-popular reason for seeking a job was a flexible working arrangement.

“The work I do at the Department is meaningful,” another employee wrote. “I love my job. I love being part of this team. But I also need to focus on my family, my health, and balance in my life.”

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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