The Department of the Interior is again expanding return-to-office orders for select employees after officials already set attendance requirements for managers and Capital-area staff at the end of 2023.

On Tuesday, Acting Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis announced non-bargaining unit teleworkers in regional and national offices around the country will be required to work onsite 50% of the time beginning April 21, according to an email obtained by Federal Times. Employees had been previously required to report to their official duty stations at least twice per biweekly pay period, according to Interior’s policy.

“I have to be honest: it’s really nice to see so many of you in person,” Daniel-Davis said in the email. “Yes, the parking lots are filling up earlier, and the elevators are fuller, but I so appreciate the chance to engage with more of our dedicated workforce. It is undeniable that in-person engagement has led to more meaningful interactions across the [national capital region].”

Daniel-Davis said the latest decision was “based on valuable insight gained from implementation of the NCR policies.” The change does not apply to those with approved remote work agreements, which is different from telework in that it never requires reporting in person.

The department is also seeking to eventually apply this change to bargaining unit teleworkers. The official announcement said this would be done consistent with labor obligations.

On a somewhat consistent basis since the COVID-19 emergency was declared over in May of last year, cabinet-level agency leaders have been heeding instruction by the White House to call federal workers back to offices.

The Biden administration, which has tried to posture itself as worker friendly, seeks a balance between the demands of telework-skeptical lawmakers and the very real reality of a governmentwide recruitment and retention dilemma. Recent studies by the Government Accountability Office have also shown many federal offices are underutilized, and have been since before the pandemic.

Still, unions say agencies are not consulting the workforce before making reentry mandates, nor do they feel such policies are justified for teams who work requires very little interaction with the public or other stakeholders.

For example, Meka Lawson, president of AFGE local 1114, represents employees of the Interior Business Center in Denver, Colorado. The majority of the work employees do can be done from home, she said, as it mostly involves payroll processing, contract auditing, accounting and personnel security.

IBC serves 150 different federal organizations, so the work is geographically decentralized to begin with, Lawson said.

The National Treasury Employees Union said its members in the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management are not immediately affected by the recent telework announcement, but the union will “oppose any attempt by management to expand this new telework guidance to bargaining unit employees,” President Doreen Greenwald said in a statement.

“The 50% in-office standard, based on unwise and counterproductive guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget, is arbitrary and unjustified, especially when federal employees have been teleworking successfully for decades, well before the pandemic,” she added.

Negative attention from Republicans on the Hill, coupled with generational differences in ideas about the workplace and uncertainty about federal real estate, seem to be the driving forces behind these top-down decisions, Lawson added.

Steven Baird, whose local represents Bureau of Land Management employees under the American Federation of Government Employees union, pointed out that telework decisions may be better made by managers who can make those calls for their own teams. He acknowledged that telework is a privilege and may not be suitable for every worker, but blanket decisions may not be effective either.

“I think this is a knee jerk reaction to the ending of COVID,” Baird said in an interview. And seeing people’s faces in person “is not a policy; it’s a feeling,” he added.

He said his union is certainly to be affected if the department further expands the scope of this order, and he has already initiated communication with members and other unions, including NTEU, to have a unified front when it’s time to negotiate.

“We are going to be at the table for this whether they want us to or not,” he said. “It affects our employees, and it’s a change in conditions.”

Baird added that, in general, it would help for management to be better educated about how bargaining units can help them achieve the outcomes they’re being tasked with reaching. But a lot of the time, the union is viewed as the enemy, he said.

“Let’s let’s be open and honest,” he said. “Let’s negotiate terms that fit the employee and let’s get back to work.”

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