As the COVID-19 pandemic entered its second year in the United States, agencies began to report increasing numbers of employees who received authorized eligibility for telework, meaning their performance and work requirements could be maintained in a remote environment.
About 45 percent of federal employees were listed as eligible for telework as of June 2021, according to data released at the beginning of September on the Office of Personnel Management’s employee data site, Fedscope.
The Department of Education and NASA designated the largest portions of their workforces as eligible for remote work, with all but about a dozen of each agency’s employees authorized for telework.
The Departments of Energy and the Interior also reported telework eligibility for over 90 percent of their workforces.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration had some of the lowest eligibility numbers, with 2.1 percent and 0.4 percent of their employees eligible, respectively.
SSA drew controversy before the pandemic for ending a yearslong telework pilot and removing eligibility for many teleworking employees, due to what the agency characterized as a lack of data on how remote work impacted citizen services.
Jim Borland, assistant deputy commissioner for systems at SSA, testified in November 2020 that the agency was able to get approximately 90 percent of its workforce teleworking during the pandemic, but also noted that remote work would not be “one size fits all” in a post-pandemic world.
The telework eligibility indicators are new data points on the Fedscope system, beginning with the release of December 2020 numbers. OPM’s standards for telework eligibility markers have been in place, however, since 2012.
Agencies reported in December that about 44.5 percent of all employees were telework eligible. And though the difference between December 2020 and June 2021 telework eligibility is only 0.8 percent, that accounts for over 25,000 more federal employees listed as eligible during that time.
Telework eligible does not indicate that an employee is working remotely all the time, or even a majority of days during a two-week pay period. Rather, it indicates that the position itself and the employee’s performance have indicated that the person is capable of successfully performing work outside the office on either a regular or intermittent basis.
At some agencies, there are likely to be more employees teleworking than are designated as eligible on Fedscope, due to the safety precautions still in place to combat COVID-19. Such employees perform work that would not normally be as successful remotely, but the agency has decided to allow telework anyway for the sake of employee safety during the pandemic.
And some federal jobs are not compatible with remote work, such as health care providers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, border patrol agents at the Department of Homeland Security or law enforcement agents at the Department of Justice.
But OPM’s new director, Kiran Ahuja, told members of Congress during her confirmation hearing that she plans to “lean into” telework in the long term, noting that it can help with recruitment, save money on office space, and allow agencies to hire more people in remote areas, including military spouses.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.