The House voted 221-206 mostly along party lines on Wednesday to pass legislation requiring federal agencies to revert to their pre-pandemic telework policies, although the measure is likely to meet stiff resistance in the Democratically controlled Senate.
The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act (H.R. 139), introduced by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., would require agencies to “reinstate and apply the telework policies, practices and levels . . . in effect on December 31, 2019” within 30 days of the bill’s enactment. If agencies want to expand telework beyond 2019 levels, they would have to submit to Congress a plan certified by the Office of Personnel Management.
The legislation also requires a study of how telework during the pandemic impacted agencies’ missions and customer services.
Comer accused the Biden administration of offering “another perk” to federal workers instead of improving services that were negatively affected during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing long lines at Social Security Administration offices and other federal agency backlogs.
“The federal workforce already enjoys many perks not enjoyed by the private sector—including unparalleled job stability, healthy retirement benefits and reliable pay-growth expectations,” Comer said. “One would have thought—as the pandemic wound down—federal workers would have returned to their offices just as private sector workers across the nation did. But that is not the case.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the idea that federal employees engaging in telework had not been working during the pandemic was a misperception, and noted that the private sector is actually also increasing its use of telework on a permanent basis, citing a study that found 82% of companies will work in a hybrid environment “moving forward.”
“This is an arbitrary effort to roll back all of the progress made . . . over the last decade, without any participation at all of key stakeholders,” Raskin said. “It falsely equates the development of telework as a part of a balanced federal workplace policy with the sudden and near complete shift to remote work due to the pandemic. This conflation creates nothing but confusion, and it’s a wrecking ball to a policy that has been a critical success in so many workplaces.”
Comer also used Office of Personnel Management data that showed that the use of occasional or situational telework increased in fiscal 2021 to falsely claim that the Biden administration is “blindly doubling down” on the practice. But according to the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the frequency of telework among federal workers actually decreased that year: the proportion of feds who worked remotely every day fell from 47% in 2020 to 36% in 2021, while the portion who teleworked only infrequently grew from 4% in 2020 to 9% in 2021.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., suggested that Republicans’ efforts to restore 2019 telework policies are not rooted in a desire to improve governmental services for Americans, but rather to reinstate a series of draconian cuts to telework instituted under the Trump administration.
“This bill literally rolls back the clock to 2019,” Connolly said. “What was the state of federal telework in 2019? President Trump’s administration had instituted across the board limitations on telework then, particularly at major agencies that had previously made progress on the issue, like the Education and Agriculture departments, while the overall participation rate actually dropped for the first time since the passage of the [2010 Telework Enhancement Act].”
Federal employee unions also were quick to decry the legislation. American Federation of Government Employees Legislative Director Julie Tippens described the measure in a letter to congressional leaders as “reflecting a misconception” of federal workplace policies and said it would cause massive disruptions to agencies.
“Agencies have adopted a variety of work arrangements since 2019, in some cases reducing their office footprint, hiring workers in remote locations far from any office or adopting hybrid models,” she wrote. “The bill does not take adequate account of this complicated existing landscape. The bill would also further compromise the federal government’s challenge in retaining the best and brightest employees, given that federal compensation already substantially lags the private sector and that most private employers have embraced remote work.”
Three Democrats voted to pass the legislation, while one Republican voted against it. The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration.