Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin joined politicians in and around Washington calling for federal employees to return to government offices after they were sent home during the COVID-19 pandemic, a move he says would revive mass transportation in the capital region.

In a letter to the director of the Office of Personnel Management obtained by Federal Times, the Republican said he’s concerned about budget deficits reported by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, thanks in part to low ridership by government commuters post pandemic.

“Federal employees must return to office work to infuse needed energy into the Greater D.C. regional economy and provide WMATA with a sustaining ridership level,” Youngkin wrote in the Dec. 6 letter.

On Thursday, WMATA reported a projected a $750 million funding gap for fiscal year 2025. The agency said it has run out of subsidy and federal relief funds after the pandemic and is struggling to boost revenue. Beginning in January, the agency said it will implement a hiring freeze, eliminate wage increases and issue layoff notices as needed if additional funding is not found.

There has been some debate about whether federal employees returning to offices would, in fact, save Metro, and what level of in-person work would be sufficient to avert further declines. However, according to 2022 data from the transit authority, more than half of Metro station serve federal facilities, and about a third of peak commuters were federal employees pre-pandemic.

Most civil servants work outside the National Capital region, but still, the area employs roughly 400,000 federal workers.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Congress and even the White House’s top leadership have called on federal offices to bring employees back. In the last few months, many agencies have responded and increased their in-person requirements. Still, the telework situation across the workforce is mixed, with variations in policy even down to offices within the same department.

The Biden administration has signaled it expects agencies to increase their on-site presence going forward, but employees and unions have maintained that these changes need to be made with the input of the workforce. Further, many have recognized that telework remains a way for agencies to recruit and retain talent at a time when agencies are hoping to hire in the years ahead to improve customer service, develop AI and IT expertise and carry out programs under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act.

Youngkin said in the letter his administration also increased in-person work in May 2022, and that “Virginia continues to reap the rewards of greater productivity, collaboration, and accountability” with the policy change.

A spokesperson for Youngkin’s office did not return requests for further details on how state programs have specifically benefited from increased in-person work.

“Federal agencies still budget and provide transit benefits to their employees which provide a tremendous incentive for federal employes to ride transit to work,” according to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s annual report. “Transit agencies including WMATA, however, only receive this revenue if federal employees ride and tap to pay their fare. The significant expansion of telework among federal employees has greatly reduced their use of WMATA and transit in general, and unused transit benefits are recouped by each respective agency.”

Youngkin said he’s urging OPM to enforce a full return-to-work policy and provide guidance to WMATA so that it can match its operations to the number of commuting riders.

Virginia employs roughly 140,400 federal employees. Maryland has about 138,900.

Gov. Wes Moore’s office did not immediately return request for comment about whether his administration shares concerns about metro ridership and telework.

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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