The Department of Veterans Affairs requirement that a small percentage of its full-time, work-from-home staff to return to the office could be the first wave in a tsunami of federal workers resuming their pre-pandemic routines — or searching for new jobs.
At stake is the future of the government workforce of nearly 2 million employees, an unknown total of whom are still working remotely despite the official end of the coronavirus pandemic on May 11.
The Office of Personnel Management, which acts as the HR department for the federal government, has said nearly half of that group were teleworking at the height of the national emergency, but the agency is only now starting to track how many still have not returned.
Battle lines have been drawn even before that data has been collected. Republican lawmakers who were frequent critics of the federal workforce are blasting continued work-from-home flexibility as catering to lazy, entitled employees, and demanding immediate changes.
Union officials in turn are vowing to fight for their members’ improved quality of life by pushing for continued use of remote work, calling it a new reality for the American economy and not simply an outdated emergency authority.
On Wednesday, VA leaders announced plans to require headquarters staff based in the Washington, D.C. region to spend at least half of each work week in the office, reversing coronavirus pandemic flexibility that allowed them to work completely from home. Those new rules won’t go into effect until this fall, and won’t fully erase remote work options for those individuals.
About 20% of the VA’s workforce is telework eligible.
The move raised concerns among some union officials. “I don’t necessarily agree that our agreements should go away because the secretary is now saying well, [come to the office] at least five days out of the week,” said Oscar L. Williams, Jr., second executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council.
In a press conference on Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he plans to work closely with unions and regional offices on future changes, but said that decisions on the status of other employees across the country will be made in coming months.
“One of the things I think we have to do is just take a step back, understand what billets are telework, what billets are remote work, and how that matches with what the needs of our veterans are,” he said. “We’re a veteran-centric organization, and we ought to be making our decisions off that rather than how decisions were made during the height of the pandemic.”
VA is the first agency to make such an announcement, but others appear ready to follow with similar moves soon. In April, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young directed all federal agencies to “update work environment plans, describing their current policies for telework … and anticipated future changes.”
Congress has been putting pressure on agencies to justify their telework agreements in the last few months, with hearings grilling the director of the Office of Personnel Management and various calls by lawmakers to cut the jobs of those who “don’t show up to work,” a phrase federal employees say insults the work they’ve continued throughout the pandemic.
On May 19, Oversight Committee Republicans led by Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) sent letters to 25 federal agencies asking them about their current office occupancy rates in Washington D.C., their productivity and whether union agreements have overridden agency processes.
Vacant offices may be a motivating factor for agency heads who need to justify paying for empty real estate. The General Services Administration, the government’s landlord, predicted in its 2024 budget a transition to “what is likely to be a smaller, less costly real estate footprint as a result of the way the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the way agencies work.”
More than half of the leases held by GSA are expiring in the next five years, and agencies are currently preparing their 2024-2028 capital plans. Still, the majority of 24 agencies surveyed by the Government Accountability Office did not terminate any leases or allow them to expire because of the pandemic.
The VA, notably, reduced 178,000 square feet in six leases because of telework increases, though that’s a small amount of space compared to the roughly 150 million square feet in its portfolio.
Employees have also vouched countless times that teleworking has been a boon for productivity, as it reduces distractions, cuts down on commuting, and allows workers to live where they can afford to.
Veterans Crisis Line managers said in an inspector general report that the transition to telework during the pandemic “improved staff morale and decreased unplanned leave usage, as well as positioned the VCL to recruit additional staff and enhance future services operations.”
Surveys taken by federal employees conducted by the government and outside consultancies have quantified telework’s value to the workforce, but Republicans maintain the Biden administration has “provided no objective evidence concerning the impact of elevated telework.”
NVAC leaders said it’s likely the new rules will be meted out on a case-by-case basis, so full ramifications are yet unclear.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
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.