Morale and staffing at a Commerce Department agency focused on local economic development are in dire straits over telework policies and recent layoffs, which have strained a workforce that is already challenged by calls from Congress to return to offices, according to a federal union.

The union, representing workers at the Economic Development Administration, sent a letter to Assistant Secretary Alejandra Castillo on May 28 calling attention to the “rapidly deteriorating” relationship between officials and agency employees who have alleged that any further return-to-work plans will exacerbate turnover and understaffing. In general, workers report onsite twice per biweekly pay period.

“Yet conversations on how best to address our concerns have completely stalled,” according to the letter obtained by Federal Times and sent by local 3810 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The letter said feedback from workers about the work environment paints a picture of “an agency on the brink of collapse.”

While most cabinet-level agencies have called their workers back to offices post-pandemic, unions have strongly opposed the move, claiming telework has always been a fixture of federal work, and that it has helped offices recruit and retain staff in light of pay shortages and competitive private sector benefits.

Lawmakers, especially Republicans, have been wary of widespread remote work, saying customer service backlogs at government agencies including the Social Security Administration and the IRS prove the case for more in-person staff. Just last week, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government’s HR department, assured lawmakers that more than half of all federal employees work in-person full time.

Still, as House Republicans seek to increase that share via legislation, union leaders at EDA are saying reentry mandates will prompt employees to seek employment elsewhere, jeopardizing a period of growth for the agency that has seen its annual programs grow by $200 million in recent years thanks to supplemental funding via the American Rescue Plan and CARES Act.

At EDA, more than half of respondents polled in a survey by the union said they are “actively” applying for jobs outside the agency. Nearly two-thirds said they would accept an outside offer if it was made.

The workforce has already been shaken, the union argued in its letter, by “mass layoffs” that occurred roughly eight months ago. Ryan Zamarripa, speaking in his capacity as vice president of local 3810, said in an interview that a group of staff members hired to carry out programs funded by supplements were called into a virtual meeting and told that they would be let go.

It’s not clear how many employees were affected, but Zamarripa said he knew of 20 to 30 who were initially hired through Schedule A for a two-year term and were then told they would be let go before that time was up.

EDA has leveraged billions of dollars for new programs since Congress began its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but its resources for administering them are finite, officials said.

In a statement, Assistant Secretary Castillo and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development and Chief Operating Officer Ben Page said the department has appropriately overseen its allocations.

The agency did not elaborate on the layoffs cited by the union.

“EDA appropriately managed the resources that were provided, leveraging term employees to address an unprecedented surge in work without leaving an unsustainable fiscal burden,” they said. “EDA has repeatedly sought additional resources through the President’s budget to sustain these term staff to continue the high degree of customer service and we continue to work with Congress to secure the necessary resources.”

In any case, AFGE said safeguarding telework is important to maintaining a workforce for the only federal government agency focused exclusively on economic development.

EDA offices and projects are geographically dispersed around the country, so it makes sense that the agency be able to retain telework, Zamarripa said.

“The bulk of our work was getting done in the field, and that’s the point of our agency,” he added. “We’re supposed to be in the communities that we serve. By requiring people to be not in the communities, but rather in a federal office, either in D.C. or [regional headquarters offices], we’re taking away that very critical step. I think that’s something that, for whatever reason, is not being heard fully by the leadership of EDA.”

In other instances, agency officials have shown up to monthly labor council meetings in half force, the union said. The letter alleges that issues brought up during these meetings are not communicated up the chain to those in a position of decision making power, “to no resolution or update.”

In their joint statement, Assistant Secretary Castillo and Deputy Assistant Secretary Page said leadership is committed to working through workplace challenges.

“Throughout this period of exponential programmatic growth, EDA’s leadership team, our union, and our stakeholders have engaged in frequent, real-time dialogue about where we are, and where we are headed, including in the thoughtful planning for our required increased office attendance,” they said. “These conversations have happened both privately, as well as through frequent leadership team calls and open town halls.”

The union said agency leaders received the letter and responded sharing their intent to work through the issues.

“Honestly, the first step is just having the assistant secretary take what we’re saying seriously and engage with us in a way that prevents more people leaving,” Zamarripa said. “At the end of the day, we’re all here because we think this is a great agency that does really good work, and we want to ensure that we’re able to do that going forward.”

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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