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Republicans prioritize curbing federal remote work

Now that they control the U.S. House, Republicans may try to either restrict or end federal remote work, which they see as impediment to government service delivery.

U.S. House Republicans and Elon Musk share something in common: they don't like remote work.

Musk, CEO of Tesla and Twitter, ended remote work at those two companies last year. On Wednesday, within a week of the election of the House Speaker and swearing in of the new Congress, a key Republican introduced a bill to bring federal employees back to the office

The bill, "Stopping Home Office Work's Unproductive Problems," is intended to "ensure the federal workforce returns to the office," said U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., in a statement. This isn't the first effort by Republicans to end federal remote work. But now that they control the House, the legislation's prospects are bright.

Ending remote work at Twitter triggered resignations, and it has since been reported that Musk softened his stance at that company. Republicans face a similar problem in ending remote work, with some federal officials describing it as important to retention and recruiting and union contracts beginning to include provisions for remote work.

Remote work on customer service

Comer is the new chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, responsible for overseeing federal agencies, which puts him in a solid position to get his bill to the House floor for a vote. While his legislation may win House approval, its prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate are uncertain.

Comer argued that expanding telework during the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the government's customer service delivery for veterans or people awaiting tax refunds, passport applications and other government services.

According to a government survey this year of 550,000 federal employees, 25% reported teleworking three or more days a week, 17% one to two days a week, and 3% about one to two days a month.

Ending remote work for federal employees has been a long-standing goal of Republicans. In 2021, for instance, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a letter to several federal agency leaders urging "immediate action to transition federal workers to resume in-person operations."

The Democrats may be more supportive of remote work than the Republicans. But the issue may put them in an uncomfortable position.

Washington D.C. hit hard by remote work

Cities that are Democratic strongholds, such as San Francisco and New York, are seeing soaring office vacancies and a loss of downtown pedestrian traffic. This has also been true in Washington D.C., where many federal offices are located. Kastle Systems LLC, an access control systems company that uses swipe data at various buildings to estimate occupancy, put Washington's average office occupancy rate in early January at about 33% compared to pre-COVID-19 occupancy.

The bill will ensure the federal workforce returns to the office.
U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky.

Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser wants to convert empty offices into housing to increase the city's downtown residential population from about 25,000 to 100,000 eventually. But doing so will require cooperation from President Joe Biden's administration. The federal government leases about a third of the office spaces downtown, Bowser said in her inaugural speech last week. Bowser is in her third term.

"​​We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by non-profits, by businesses, and by any user willing to revitalize it," Bowser said.

Union agreements may be a problem

The federal government is sending out mixed messages about remote work.

In July, Kiran Ahuja, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, told a congressional committee that workplace flexibility is needed "to attract and retain talent in this tight labor market."

But in remarks last March, President Biden urged workers to return to the office.

"Because of the progress we've made in fighting COVID, Americans can not only get back to work but they can go to the office and safely fill our great downtown cities again and creating more commerce," Biden said.

Complicating federal remote work policies are labor unions. Remote work policies are also getting baked into federal employee union agreements, which could make it difficult for federal agencies to order workers back to the office even if they wanted to.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. -- new chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee -- faulted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for its "failure to return its employees to regular, in-person work." The agency employs about 2,000.

But also last month, the union representing EEOC workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, said it had reached an agreement with EEOC on remote work. Under it, employees will report to the office for three days per every bi-weekly pay period for the first two months of 2023. Starting in March, they'll report four days per pay period "while the agency and union finalize terms for a permanent telework program."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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