The House Oversight and Reform Committee voted 23-17 on Wednesday to advance legislation aimed at strengthening the federal government’s approach to telework to the House floor for consideration.
The Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act (H.R. 7951), introduced by Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and John Sarbanes, D-Md., would require agencies to provide 30 days’ advance notice to Congress and the Office of Personnel Management of any action that would reduce federal workers’ access to telework, as well as expand data collection on telework, particular its cost and environmental benefits.
The bill also empowers OPM to develop standards for the collection and use of agency telework data, develop training for supervisors and managers on telework-related issues, and to publish new guidance on how agencies should manage their telework programs.
Connolly argued that the laws governing telework in the federal government are in need of an update to incorporate what agencies learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and said expanded permanent telework programs would improve agencies’ continuity of operations and help recruit the next generation of federal workers.
“The pandemic will not last forever, hopefully, and the federal government will not maintain a pandemic-level telework posture in perpetuity,” Connolly said. “But we can’t ignore the hard lessons that this pandemic has taught us. Enhanced need and demand for telework among federal employees and the national workforce should and will persevere . . . To remain competitive, the federal government has to keep up with the private sector. Telework saves money, helps recruit top talent, makes environmental sense, and it ensures a continuity of operations at agencies that families, businesses, and veterans can rely on each day.”
But Republicans on the committee argued that large numbers of federal employees teleworking has led to increases in service backlogs at agencies like the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Veterans Affairs Department. Instead, they said, agencies should immediately revert to pre-pandemic telework levels until they can “prove” any increases will only increase productivity.
“Our approach brings federal employees back to their offices until we understand and correct the adverse effects of expanded telework,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the committee’s ranking member. “The Biden administration, however, has doubled down on expanded telework without fixing the problem. The administration’s priority is to provide federal workers with a shiny new perk, not to improve agency mission performance.”
Connolly responded by pointing out that Democrats recognize that many federal jobs require in-person work and argued that the problem of increasing backlogs during the pandemic was not due to telework, but rather because employees were unable to do those jobs safely because of the transmission of COVID-19.
“The complaints about some federal agencies not dealing with backlogs or not dealing with customers service aren’t because of telework, they’re because of something called COVID-19,” he said. “People died. It’s one thing to express concern about the operations of a federal agency, but when there was a bill called the Chai Act, named after my constituent who died from COVID because of a lack of protocols in the workplace, that bill was blocked from [passing by] suspension [of the rules] on the floor by the other side of the aisle. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t complain they’re not open and then do nothing about making sure they’re safe.”
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., proposed an amendment that would have barred federal employees who telework at least three days per week from receiving locality pay.
“[For federal teleworkers whose offices are in Washington, D.C.], if they work from home for four days a week, taxpayers are on the hook for as much as $40,000 per year per employee even if the employee chooses to live in a lower cost part of the country,” Biggs said. “While bureaucrats are working from home while the backlogs at their official work sites continue to pile up, we want to ensure taxpayers are getting what they pay for.”
According to OPM guidance published last fall, teleworking federal employees must report to their traditional work site at least twice per pay period in order to qualify for locality pay tied to that site’s region. Remote workers, who do not commute to a traditional agency facility on a regular basis, are still paid locality pay, although it is tied to their home, not an agency facility’s location.
Connolly was incensed by Biggs’ proposal, which he described as “punitive,” and decried the rhetoric underlying his argument.
“Even the language used by my friend from Arizona is pejorative,” he said. “‘They’re not really working if they’re not physically there. They’re bureaucrats, not public servants serving our constituents . . . I was the chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments after 9/11, and the Pentagon attack was the second worst terrorist incident in American history. I lost constituents that day. We had to figure out what do you do, how do you keep government operating when they can’t go to work physically? And you know what the answer was: a vigorous telework program, and that was 22 years ago. Are we retreating into the cave like none of this has happened?”
Biggs’ amendment failed by a vote of 16-22. The bill now heads to the floor for consideration by the full House.