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Hice: Federal Workforce Must Return to the Workplace

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Washington, DC, May 19, 2021 | comments

Subcommittee on Government Operations Ranking Member Jody Hice (R-Ga.) yesterday wrote to Office of Personnel Management Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan calling for the federal workforce to return to the workplace.

In his letter to Acting Director McGettigan, Subcommittee Ranking Member Hice emphasized how vaccination rates and COVID-19 immunity are rapidly rising across the United States and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced vaccinated Americans no longer have to wear masks or social distance in most indoor and outdoor settings. He highlighted how prolonged remote work has negatively impactedmany Americans, especiallyveterans, Social Security beneficiaries and others who need prompt service from federal agencies, and how some agencies have failed to provide sufficient resources for personnel to be fully productive during maximum telework.

“Thanks to President Trump’s strong leadership and Operation Warp Speed, our nation has access to life-saving vaccines in record time. COVID-19 cases are plummeting across the country and it’s past time for the federal workforce to return to their places of work,”said Subcommittee Ranking Member Hice. “Prolonged remote work is harming Americans’ access to federal agencies and is costing taxpayers. OPM needs to prepare federal employees to return to the workforce immediately.America’s government should be leading the way out of the pandemic, not lagging behind the rest of the country.”

Hice concluded his letter by raising concerns about prolonged telework and its impact on the American taxpayer, including building and rental costs as well as locality pay for federal employees working remotely. He called on OPM to provide a briefing on the agency’s plans to have employees return to their normal places of work no later thanMay 25, 2021.

Below is the full text of the letter.

May 18, 2021

The Honorable Kathleen McGettigan

Acting Director

U.S. Office of Personnel Management

1900 E Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20415

 

Dear Acting Director McGettigan:

I write today to urge the Federal workforce to return to the fullest possible degree to its normal places of work.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—over a year ago—adaptations to the virus and its dangers have led to a high degree of fully remote working arrangements within the federal workforce.The Biden Administration signaled its intention for these practices to continue through the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) January 24, 2021, guidance on federal workplace safety.OMB’s guidance directed agencies to “maximize the use of remote work during widespread community transmission…” and that “…occupancy in Federal workspaces should be no more than 25% of normal capacity during periods of significant or high community transmission.”Vaccination rates and COVID-19 immunity are rising rapidly across the Nation.In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus may stop wearing masks or maintaining social distance in most indoor and outdoor settings, regardless of size. It is time to begin transitioning to the workplace.If it is the administration’s intention to prolong remote working arrangements, then it is appropriate to hold a comprehensive policy discussion around related issues.

Prolonging arrangements taken in an exigent situation is not a permanent solution. Members of Congress from both parties have emphasized that the lack of face-to-face services during the pandemic has had real, negative impacts on veterans, Social Security beneficiaries, and others who need prompt, attentive service from public servants at federal agencies. This is particularly critical for the most vulnerable of our constituents including seniors and low-income Americans, as well as individuals who may not have internet access or the computer skills necessary to navigate an entirely virtual interaction with a government agency.

These are not hypothetical concerns.The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration recently found, at least with respect to the IRS, that “[a]lthough customer service operations have resumed, the IRS’s ability to provide adequate assistance to taxpayers continues to be affected by COVID-19” in part because of a limit on the number of employees who can physically present themselves to any given IRS office.That report noted that “[t]he information provided by the IRS raises significant concerns about taxpayers’ ability to obtain assistance during the 2021 Filing Season.”This raises concerns that other customer-service oriented federal agency functions are suffering from near uniform virtual work.

Even at agencies without daily direct contact with the public, the implementation of fully remote workplaces was not without serious concerns.For example, the Department of Defense Inspector General recently found that some Department of Defense (DOD) components failed to provide sufficient network capacity, communication tools, and equipment to enable personnel to be fully productive during the maximum telework precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.This caused some personnel to use “their own alternative solutions including the use of unauthorized video conferencing applications and personal laptops, printers, and cell phones to complete their work” which “increases the risk of exposing sensitive departmental information that could impact national security and DOD missions.”

If the intention is to shift to remote working, there are other issues that must be addressed.For example, with the federal government spending approximately $10 billion per year on building and rental costs, there is the question how much is actually needed if workers are not going to be in offices. It should also be noted that many employees receive large locality pay increases to their base pay; these are based on where they work, not where they live.For example, workers in the Washington, DC region receive an additional locality payment of 30.48% of their base salary. Even if they are now working fully remotely and not commuting to work.If fully remote work arrangements continue indefinitely into the future, the taxpayers would benefit from reassessing whether remote workers should be considered eligible for locality pay.

In order to facilitate oversight over these important issues, I request a staff-level briefing no later than May 25, 2021 regarding the preparation and planning currently underway for a return of the federal workforce to its ordinary work locations.To make arrangements for the briefing or to ask any related follow-up questions, please contact Oversight and Reform Republican Staff at (202) 225-5074.

The Committee on Oversight and Reform is the principal oversight committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and has broad authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under House Rule X.Thank you for your cooperation with this inquiry.

Sincerely,

Jody Hice

Ranking Member

Subcommittee on Government Operations

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