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Coronavirus tests Trump's opposition to federal telework

The Trump administration is trying to curtail federal telework. But the new coronavirus may change those plans, as some agencies are starting to shift to remote work.

In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a phase-out of telecommuting at her firm.

Then-private citizen Donald Trump tweeted his support, saying: "Now I know that Yahoo is in good hands." He added: "It took great courage for [Mayer] to take away the right of employees to work at home."

As president, Trump is now taking away the ability of some federal employees to work at home. The administration is curtailing a telecommuting program for customer service, claims and other occupations at the Social Security Administration, and it is seeking to change union contracts to give it more power over federal telework. 

The National Treasury Employees Union is accusing the administration of "trying to gut telework in labor contracts," it said in a recent blog post

The White House has not announced specific plans to scale back telecommuting, but there is evidence of its intent. 

The best indication of Trump's perception of federal telework is in four tweets about Mayer's telecommuting decision at Yahoo. In one tweet, he said: "Also, if they're at home who the hell knows what they're doing (a second job maybe)."

"Trump's attitude toward telework comes as no surprise," said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics in San Diego. "Trust is the foundation of remote work, and Trump assumes the rest of the world is as untrustworthy as he is."

"Leaders at successful companies understand that remote work allows them to hire the best and the brightest from around the world," Lister said. "They know giving people the autonomy to work untethered leads to greater loyalty, higher productivity and greater engagement."

Federal telework has support in Congress

Last fall, the Social Security Administration ended a six-year telework pilot for 12,000 workers. Democratic lawmakers, particularly in light of the novel coronavirus, are challenging the decision.

Trump's attitude toward telework comes as no surprise.
Kate ListerPresident, Global Workplace Analytics

"We are learning new information about COVID-19 daily," wrote U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and U.S. Sen. Roy Wyden (D-Ore.) in a March 4 letter to Social Security commissioner Andrew Saul. They cautioned against "abandoning" the agency's federal telework infrastructure.

Earlier this month, House Democrats introduced legislation to "stop the Trump administration's rollback" of telework programs. The Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act would prohibit agencies "from making indiscriminate, across the board cuts to telework." It is sponsored by three Democrats, U.S. Reps. Gerry Connolly and Jennifer Wexton, both of Virginia, and John Sarbanes of Maryland.

But the coronavirus outbreak may be upsetting the administration's plans.

Late Monday afternoon, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said an employee in its Washington headquarters was told he may have the coronavirus. "Amongst other precautions, the SEC is encouraging headquartered employees to telework until further guidance," a spokeswoman said.

The NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said Monday it was also employing a "mandatory telework status" after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

OPM cites coronavirus

U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the government's HR organization, is urging agencies to prepare for the virus. In a memo sent Saturday, it told managers to "ensure that written telework agreements are in place for as many employees as possible."

The U.S. employs some 2.3 million civilian, non-postal, workers.

"The American people should care about the ability of our government to handle the coronavirus for itself," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works with government officials to improve workforce management. "Fundamentally, the government is our one tool for collective action against big problems like this, and it begins with its own workforce."

"Tools like telework are fundamental to success here," Stier said. "Our public servants are deeply committed individuals and we need to make sure that they're led right and have the right tools to do what they care about, which is to serve the public," he said.

The OPM estimates that up to 43% of all federal workers are eligible for telework. In some agencies, the percentage is larger. About 51% of Social Security's approximately 61,000 employees are eligible. At the Internal Revenue Service, 50% of its 79,000 employees could work remotely.

The U.S. is slow in producing numbers showing actual telecommuting trends. OPM's most recent report on telecommuting was released in 2019 but only focuses on 2017. It reported that telework participation decreased slightly from 22% to 21% of all employees in 2017. The reasons for the decline included better data from agencies on their use of teleworking, attrition and fewer major events, such as crippling snowstorms, which drive telework.

More recent data from the federal government's annual engagement survey gives a snapshot of the current use of federal telework. About 42% of the workforce filled out the 2019 survey. Of those responding, 16% said they telecommute one to two days per week, 5% three to four days a week, and 2% everyday. About 6% telework one or two days a month. The survey was taken before the Social Security telework work changes.

When OPM released its 2019 report on telecommuting, then-acting director Margaret Weichert said the engagement survey data was showing  "that individuals with access to telework are more engaged, more satisfied with work, and more likely to remain at their agencies than employees who are unable to telework."

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