Republican skepticism over federal telework gets airing

House Republicans put federal agencies on the defensive over federal telework, with two lawmakers suggesting that working from home is equivalent to sitting on a couch all day.

Republican U.S. House members unleashed their skepticism over federal telework at a hearing this week, suggesting that some teleworkers are couch potatoes. They questioned top federal HR managers and administrators over the productivity of teleworkers and how working from home affects data security and customer service.

"I am in no way trying to smear any government worker for sitting on the couch in their pajamas," Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-N.C.) said at the Government Operations and the Federal Workforce subcommittee hearing.

I am in no way trying to smear any government worker for sitting on the couch in their pajamas.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards

Edwards said he wants "to understand how to convince, if possible, the American taxpayer that they're getting a better deal by allowing people to work at home."

Federal managers defended telework as essential for remaining competitive in hiring, especially with the private sector. They cited its importance in keeping military spouses employed in civilian federal jobs, as service members are transferred globally.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) questioned the Social Security Administration (SSA) and drew a connection between federal telework and lengthy backlogs of claims for benefits. In particular, she questioned the use of telework for employees being trained or during their initial probationary period.

"Approximately 10,000 people die each year while awaiting a decision from your agency," Boebert said, while "you all are allowing delinquent employees to sit on their sofas at home instead of actually getting to work and doing their jobs."

Concerning federal teleworkers, Boebert asked if the SSA is "monitoring the work that they're doing from home on a regular basis."

In response, Oren "Hank" McKnelly, executive counselor for the SSA, said teleworkers are subject to the same performance management standards and oversight as any other employees. He said the agency has a "real-time understanding of what actions are being processed at any particular given time."

Required to be accessible

Employees are "required to be accessible to their supervisors, clients, colleagues and external parties during work hours," McKnelly said, and that includes being available on instant messaging, video platforms and telephone.

Boebert, however, wanted to know why Social Security's case backlog has risen. McKnelly blamed underfunding, pointing to a workload that has increased by 8 million beneficiaries, while its staffing levels are at their lowest point.

In April, the White House instructed agencies to increase the number of people working in the office, but without abandoning hybrid arrangements.

"Agency workforces are generally expected to increase meaningful in-person work -- that is in-person work that is purposeful, well-planned, and optimized for in-person collaboration -- while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention," wrote Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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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