Less than a quarter of United States federal employees worked remotely to varying degrees in 2019, with about three percent doing so full-time. During the height of the pandemic in late-2020, the percentage of federal remote workers tripled to as much as 75 percent.
Three years later, however, even with the COVID-19 emergency long-subsided, nearly half the 2.1 million civilians employed by federal agencies are still working remotely, mostly from home.
Congressional Republicans, citing a litany of complaints from constituents about long waits for responses and poor services, say it is time for federal workers to man offices at pre-pandemic staffing levels and to assess the impacts of telework policies on agency performance.
The GOP-controlled House on Feb. 1 advanced “The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act”—The SHOW UP Act—in a partisan voice vote after an hour-long debate over Democrat objections that the bill “demonized” federal workers for Congress’s failure to fund needed upgrades in technology and manpower.
The bill, which was dispatched directly to the chamber floor by the Rules Committee following a Jan. 30 hearing without committee vetting, is largely symbolic since it is unlikely to be adopted as written by the Democrat-majority Senate.
The SHOW-UP Act requires agencies to return to 2019 staffing levels, when approximately 22 percent of federal employees worked “routinely” or “situationally” out of the office, within 30 days of the bill’s adoption.
The bill would also require federal agencies to study if telework improves the delivery of services, reduces costs, ensures security, and better disperses the federal workforce across the country.
Proponents: Telework Emptied Federal Offices
House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who sponsored the measure, said The SHOW-UP Act would prevent the Biden administration “locking in” telework capacity at current levels, noting that 47 percent of federal workers currently report they are working “routinely” or “situationally” away from their offices.
“The federal workforce needs to get back to work,” he said. “Federal agencies are falling short on their duties. They are failing the American people.”
Comer and a parade of GOP proponents said that constituents are frustrated by slow, inadequate responses from federal agencies, including from the IRS, the Veterans Administration, Social Security Administration, the Agriculture Department’s Farmers Service Agency, and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
They cited 12.4 million 2021 income tax returns that the IRS has still not processed, a backlog of 97,000 healthcare eligibility applications filed with the Veterans Administration, 1 million claims festering unresolved with the Social Security Administration, and months-long waits for passports, among other service shortfalls they said were being made worse by inadequate in-person staffing.
“Veterans are waiting for months to get medical records from the national archives because the archives staff is not at the archive but at home,” Comer said. “This is unacceptable and it should be downright embarrassing” for federal agencies.
He said the Biden administration has “showered” the “already privileged federal bureaucracy” with “perks and pay raises all while working at home” and is pushing for an “expanded telework policy—not to help constituents but to recruit new employees to the federal workforce.”
“The pandemic is over,” Rep. Byron Donald (R-Fla.) said. “It is time for federal employees to go back to the office.”
Donald said the president must submit an annual budget next week, but Biden is “telling everybody he needs another month. I wonder if that’s because some of the budget staff are not in the office.”
“This is simple stuff,” he continued. “Most of the American people have gone back to work. All we are saying is let’s go back to pre-pandemic protocols. (Current telework staffing levels) is not working for the American people.”
Returning to 2019 staffing levels “will help all the American people and, frankly, help the president get his budget in on time,” Donald said.
Comer said the bill does not end telework, nor does it preclude some agencies from expanding levels beyond 2019 telework staffing, but they must prove that it would improve services and be cost-effective.
Even progressive Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser—a frequent critic for GOP policies—agrees, he said, noting how the mayor in her Jan. 2 inauguration speech called on the administration to suspend its telework policy or turn over federal buildings to the city for public housing.
More than 365,000 federal workers—16 percent of the government’s entire workforce—occupy office space in Washington. With as many as 200,000 now working from home at least some of the time, up to a third of city’s office space is now either empty or undermanned during workdays, leaving local businesses with fewer customers and constituents frustrated with slow responses and poor services.
“If we are not going to occupy these buildings, we need to do something with them. They are very expensive to maintain,” Comer said.
Opponents: Telework is Effective, Cost-Efficient
Indeed, agreed House Oversight Committee ranking member Rep. Jamie Rankin (D-Md.) who said the federal government’s embrace of telework is in line with the private sector, increases worker efficiency, agency productivity, and could save taxpayers money by reducing the office space needed to house federal workers.
The bill is “an assault on all the progress we have made in the last few years in federal policy” regarding the cost-savings in remote work, claiming, “Telework has improved efficiency, reduced traffic congestion, made positive environmental changes,” he said.
Rankin said if the bill restores 2019 telework staffing levels with 30 days, the Federal Communications Commission would have to scrap a plan to reduce office leases by $119 million a year, and the U.S. Trademark Office would have to set aside $12.5 million in savings from needing less office space.
Spearheading the opposition, Rankin also called the SHOW-UP Act a misnomer. “People already are working. They don’t need to go back to work.”
The SHOW-UP Act “would be costing taxpayers” more rather than saving money with a “one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter” mandate to uniformly revert to pre-pandemic protocols, he said.
“Are we willing to say we hate telework so much that we are going to force the taxpayers to pay more money for expensive office space? So we can tell workers who are already at work to get back to work?” Rankin asked, calling the bill “an attempt to demonize technology. I don’t take this as serious legislation.”
He and other Democrats noted with irony that proponents cited slow response times and backlogged returns at the IRS, but balked at the Biden administration’s $80 billion plan to upgrade IRS’s technology and to hire 5,000 people over the next decade, which would really only supplant those who are retiring or otherwise leaving federal service.
Most IRS agents man phones to field questions from constituents. “The telephone still works at home. That doesn’t make sense to me. Responding to [constituents’] phone calls can be done from anywhere,” Rankin said, adding that understaffing and obsolete technology are “surely a far more likely culprit than whatever telework policies are in effect at the IRS.”
Democrats said the bill should have gone through the committee process so agency representatives and the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) could have testified about their telework policies and what is working and what is not.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said agency chiefs and other officials can put their thoughts into the report they’ll be required to file under the bill assessing their telework policies. Otherwise, he said, there’s no need to belabor the issue.
“This bill just says to show up. It should have been done a long time ago. I am glad we are finally getting this bill to the floor,” he said.
“The bill presents a simple premise,” Comer concluded. “Do you put constituents first or federal workers first?”
How’s about NO WORKY, NO PAYEE..
Unfortunately, government work is nothing like the private sector. The private sector has, in most cases, fairly stringent requirements for its employees – productivity quotas, many companies only allow a limited number of excused absences, etc, etc. Government, on the other hand, seems to have pretty lax requirements, both on who they hire, job performance, etc. For example, once a government employee passes their probationary period, how often do you hear about government workers being fired? Yes, it happens, but I’d guess far less than in the private sector.
Perhaps, and I don’t know this to be true, it’s this difference between federal and private sector employees which is the lion’s share of the problem.
All that said, I think an across the board assessment of remote work should’ve been done prior to putting forth this bill, as tele-work isn’t without merit. In some cases it might actually be more efficient and cost-effective. Still, given how government workers seem to get away with far more than your average private sector workers, insisting that the bulk of them return to the office seems like a sensible plan.
Finally, if our government would insist on the same standards as we see in the private sector, many of these constituent complaints would disappear post-haste.
I forgot where i read it, but someone said part of WHY its so bloody hard to fire a federal worker,is NOT just their damn unions, but the damn LAWS in place to ‘protect them’.
I’m sure all of these federal gubment “workers” are 100% productive and contributing to the positive welfare of the US. NNNNNOOOOTTTTT. Leaches, parasites all.
IIRC a 60 minutes show, showed just HOW MUCH TIME those ‘federal workers’ spend ACTUALLY DOING their job, vs surfing for porn/doing online shopping..
IF THEY WERE PRIVATE org workers, they’d have been fired a LONG TIME ago.