Like many federal government employees, public servants in Washington, D.C., working for Mayor Muriel Bowser will be reporting to work in-person more often as lingering vestiges of the pandemic disappear.

According to updated guidance posted by the district government and confirmed by a spokesperson, employees of the district will be shifting from two telework days per week to one, effective March 10. The policy applies to all offices under the mayor’s authority, including infrastructure and government, health and human services, executive offices, education and public safety.

Perhaps seeking to lead by example, Bowser’s administration is calling district employees back to offices after urging federal agencies to do the same. More than 160,000 federal employees work in the district, and many clocked in from home when government offices shuttered due to the pandemic.

“The intention is to enhance our engagement with the community, foster a more collaborative work environment and support the local economy,” said Clarissa Rucker, a spokesperson for D.C. human resources, in a statement.

Across the 2.1 million-large federal workforce, 90% of eligible federal employees were teleworking in 2020, according to data by the Office of Personnel Management. Now, about 70% of all federal employees telework at least occasionally, per a recent governmentwide survey.

Pressure from Congress and the White House has shifted guidance to encourage in-person work at dozens of federal offices. Concerns have risen especially over long-term real estate vacancies and what agencies plan to do about them if employees aren’t occupying office space. D.C. is home to more than two dozen federal buildings.

“We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time, or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses and by any user willing to revitalize it,” Bowser said on Jan. 2, 2023.

Government employee groups refute suggestions that they’re responsible for resuscitating economic casualties caused by the pandemic, and unions have fought to retroactively negotiate back-to-work decisions.

During a sample pay period in mid-October, about 5,000 D.C. government workers routinely teleworked — a small portion of the 33,600 total employed by the District, according to Rucker.

Current policy also states that regardless of telework options available, D.C. agency heads must ensure that half of office staff are physically present during usual business hours.

Part of Bowser’s local economic strategy acknowledges that “hybrid work is here to stay,” meaning growing the district’s residency and economy must involve other strategies, including “bringing back traditional office users” but also “transitioning legacy office space to new uses,” according to 2022 planning documents.

Union response

As those decisions play out, employees and unions have come out against blanket return-to-office orders, saying telework is a strong recruitment incentive and assists employees in balancing child care, lengthy commutes and office distractions.

Wayne Enoch, executive director of council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a largest public sector union, said if there are problems with the telework policy that prompted recent changes, they should be addressed on an individual basis, not globally.

“Prior to the pandemic, the district’s policy allowed two remote days and alternative work schedules and there were no systematic problems,” he continued. “In this evolving workforce, this is a regressive posture and could create more vacancies and hard to fill positions because other employers have more to offer.”

Enoch also said he recognizes the approach aims to help the district’s economy, but nonetheless there can be other creative solutions to balance competing interests.

A Dec. 29 letter from the district’s chief financial officer, Glen Lee, said the city’s greatest revenue risks come from a potential government shutdown and commercial real estate vacancies that are expected to rise from 17% to 26% by 2027.

The union said it has requested to meet with the district over the new telework policy.

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.

In Other News
Load More