A subagency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is increasing in-person work for its employees, matching a growing number of federal agencies who are cooperating with White House orders to fill government offices in and around Washington, D.C., post pandemic.

A message was sent Wednesday during a town hall that instructed employees of the Multifamily Housing office, one of the larger departmental programs, to work onsite twice per week beginning the week of March 24, with shared “core” days each week. This comes after managers were already called back to in-person work, Federal Times previously reported in January.

A spokesperson for the agency stressed that these decisions are not arbitrary; they are based on the specific mission of the office as opposed to a department-wide, one-size-fits-all approach.

“Leadership in this particular office made the decision to increase in-office presence, based on their own business needs,” an spokesperson said in a statement to Federal Times. “This office oversees approximately 1.5 million units of housing that HUD provides to low-income Americans across the country. It is one of the most important things that we do.”

The decision is also in line with the White House and Congress’ expectations for federal agency leaders to revisit telework policies since the pandemic formally ended, but employees and the unions have resisted reentry, saying mandates feel capricious after maximum telework proved conducive, especially for non-public facing work.

Union response

HUD had one of the more liberal telework policies compared to other federal agencies, and that played favorably to recruitment and retention, said leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents thousands of department employees. Employees are not happy about the change, according to the union.

“They are outraged,” said Salvatore Viola, regional vice president of AFGE Council 222, in an interview. “There is no legitimate business reason for Multifamily Housing [to do this].”

He added that 60% of the employees joined the workforce recently, meaning younger people will “no doubt” look for a job that offers more robust telework. He said the decision affects roughly 1,000 members.

In a statement, Antonio Gaines, president of AFGE Council 222, said that the union does not view “in-person team building, water cooler conversation, mentoring and collaboration” as legitimate business needs for the purpose of changing telework policies.

“Once again, the agency is attempting to usurp their negotiated obligations, respective to the [collective bargaining agreement], supplements and policies directly related to this topic,” he said.

A department spokesperson, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the policies, stressed that preserving work-life balance remains a top priority. The official acknowledged that while the decision at Multifamily Housing may cause some employees in the office to seek flexibilities elsewhere, the department isn’t anticipating a massive exodus of staff.

“Ultimately our goal is to achieve the mission that we’re here for,” the official said in an interview. “We may have to make adjustments to asking folks to come in more frequently to be able to achieve that. I’m sure we will have some folks that choose to go somewhere else or to a different agency because of those flexibilities. But, ultimately, I think we feel that most employees that do work for the department really are here because they love the mission. They really support what we’re doing in communities. And those decisions really will drive the decisions to hopefully remain with the department.”

The department also said it understands that requiring an increased in-person is an adjustment, and change can be difficult. That’s why it said it aims to provide advance notice of reentry as much as possible and is open to training managers on how to communicate these changes openly to workers. The official said the department has also moved to encourage use of wellness leave each quarter to set aside time for personal health.

“We are offering a lot more flexibility across the department than we have ever offered before,” the spokesperson said. “We’re still providing them some flexibility with telework, but asking them to come into the office because of the work that they do.

As the overall number of federal agencies offering fully remote work dwindles, employees and agencies are coming to terms with new workplace issues that attempt to balance ongoing recruitment with empty federal real estate.

Republicans in Congress want to see telework reduced altogether, but even President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has pushed for onsite attendance. The effects of pandemic telework are still being studied, and HUD’s inspector general announced this month it would investigate HUD’s oversight of its remote work and telework programs.

Viola said given the way things are trending, it seems likely HUD will apply the order to other agency offices in the coming months.

“Our reaction is definitely a fight against this,” he said.

A spokesperson for the agency didn’t rule out the possibility that other offices may find a larger in-person presence is appropriate given their particular business needs. That may include considerations like level of public facing work or a need for in-person collaboration.

The department said it wants to work alongside the union and ensure program offices comply with the bargaining agreement when they make return-to-office decisions.

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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