Beginning January, the U.S. Department of Labor is calling back employees who have been routinely teleworking, following similar moves by other agencies to rethink post-pandemic work policies.
The department will require employees to report in-person five days per two-week pay period effective Jan. 28, an agency spokesperson confirmed.
The current policy says “full-time” teleworkers need to report to the official worksite twice per pay period. Last month, the agency called back managers and supervisors, with the exception of those with remote work agreements.
“This is about ensuring that you have as meaningful and robust an experience when you come into the office as you have when you work from home,” according to the email announcement from Acting Secretary Julie Su obtained by Federal Times. “While acknowledging the benefits, I also understand this new telework requirement will be an adjustment for many of you.”
It’s one of several recent decisions by agencies governmentwide to increase in-person work after they sent federal employees home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ever since restrictions lifted, agencies have been reassessing their remote work policies, with increasing pressure from Congress to limit them. The White House, too, has said it expects agencies to boost in-person work with the understanding that upholding some hybrid work may benefit agencies that don’t require frequent engagement with the public or other stakeholders.
Su said in light of hiring 5,300 new employees since 2021, training and team building for this new group of employees is better done in-person.
“... As you all know, so much of what we learn and the relationships built between colleagues happen not in formal settings or planned interactions but in the opportunities created through unplanned conversation, interaction, observation, networking, camaraderie and mentorship,” she said. “These are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a virtual setting.”
While the agency assured employees this was not merely a compliance exercise, a union representing some 2,400 employees said it feels like one.
“Some of the concerns that employees have [are] that they have been told by some management officials that this directive came from the White House,” said LaRhonda Gamble, speaking in her capacity as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12. “And because this directive came from the White House, that Labor is just going to move forward,”
She said in an interview that the union had been notified of the intent to change the policy, but it had not been given an opportunity to hold a briefing to ask questions and address members’ concerns.
A spokesperson for the agency said it is engaging with its unions but offered no further details.
Gamble said options for full-time telework were previously negotiated by the union and the department in the 2022 Return to Work Memorandum.
“The union and management had extensive discussions with employees through joint forums because, at that time, we were trying to partner with the department to make sure that we did what was best,” she said. “However, this completely blindsided us because it is not what we negotiated.”
Employees have already said they can get telework-eligible jobs elsewhere if the change is implemented.
In the meantime, the union said it’s willing and prepared to bargain the policy change and anticipates meeting with the agency to come to an agreement on next steps.
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.