The recent pandemic created at-home working arrangements that would have been hard to imagine. The federal workforce was no exception with many personnel changing to remote duty to keep people safe from COVID-19. Now that the public emergency is over, public and private employers alike are wading into the transition back to the office or to hybrid work.
It does seem though that American attitudes toward remote working have evolved through this collective experience. The new acceptance – or expectation – may create some friction between employers and employees over return to the office.
President Biden’s stance
The president intends for in-office work to become the norm again for federal employees. According to an informative article in Federal Times, he stated in the State of the Union that the “vast majority” of federal workers will return to the physical office, followed with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructions to agencies to make plans for this to ramp up in September and October.
Reportedly, pressure is on to increase federal office space (owned and leased) utilization because of its high cost to taxpayers. For example, Axios cites a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that of the 24 agencies, 17 of them are using in headquarters buildings an average of about one-quarter of their capacity.
Congress is also weighing in. The SHOW UP Act has passed the House, but not the Senate. Called – amazingly – The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act (H.R. 139, S. 1565), this legislation if passed would require all agencies to revert to pre-Pandemic telework practices, including the numbers of employees then allowed to work remotely.
Unions speak out
These return-to-work issues are nowhere near settled. Federal Times reports that 900,000 federal employees are union members. Those unions are saying that remote scheduling should be controlled by employment contracts reached through the collective bargaining process – not determined unilaterally by the executive branch.
Reportedly, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) has negotiated some new hybrid telework rules since the end of the pandemic. Federal Times cites the NTEU president as pointing out that telework is nothing new but has been part of federal employment in some form “for many years” with agency support. He believes that the prepandemic collective bargaining agreements that contain remote work provisions are still valid and modifications should require new negotiations.
Any federal employee or union representative facing questions about remote work rules and policies should speak with an experienced federal employment lawyer for information and guidance. Employee advocates will monitor with interest how this potential dispute evolves.