Lawmakers weigh increased telework as some agencies push federal workers back to the office

Lawmakers weigh increased telework as some agencies push federal workers back to the office
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are eyeing expanding the federal workforce’s telework capabilities as a way to reduce government spending and carbon emissions, even as several Trump administration agencies push a return to the workplace amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

As COVID-19 has reduced commutes and people become more comfortable with working from home, many private sector companies have questioned the need to spend so much money on office space.

But it would be a big shift for a federal workforce that places restrictions on working from home and often requires specific telework agreements with employees before they're allowed to do so.

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“I believe the federal government should also be looking for opportunities to save taxpayer money, wherever and whenever possible,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoLatest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Barrasso nuclear bill latest GOP effort to boost uranium mining MORE (R-Wyo.) said. 

“If all federal employees eligible for telework had telecommuted half of the time, the federal government could reduce its need for office space by 25 percent. Taxpayers could save $1.75 billion dollars in real estate costs alone, and over $11 billion in total costs,” Barrasso added, citing research from Global Workplace Analytics.

Opposition to the idea is not likely to come from Democrats, but rather the Trump administration, where federal agencies have begun to phase workers back in following an April memo from the White House.

Agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the IRS to the Office of Personnel Management have released plans to have employees return to the office, according to reporting from Government Executive, oftentimes in phases.

But not all of those plans meet coronavirus guidelines set out by the Government Accountability Office, and many have been resisted by some employee unions.

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EPA’s union called for a moratorium on the reopening “until the impacts of the COVID-I9 pandemic are more predictable.”

The success of working from home through the pandemic could be a “tipping point for telework,” however, Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, told the Public Works Committee.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle see reasons for the government to reduce its office space footprint, whether it's to save money or to reduce emissions through a decline in commuting and electricity usage.

“The sudden shift to implementing flexible work strategies like telework across the federal government has given us an opportunity to examine how those alternative methods actually work — or do not work. This is our opportunity to find out what works and do more of that,” panel ranking member Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperNot a pretty picture: Money laundering and America's art market OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat | White House pushed to release documents on projects expedited due to coronavirus | Trump faces another challenge to rewrite of bedrock environmental law NEPA White House pushed to release documents on projects expedited due to coronavirus MORE (D-Del.) said.

Early studies show emissions have dropped as a result of stay-at-home orders. 

The main concern raised by Democrats is the hit public transit has taken as more people work from home.

“Local transit agencies reported that ridership dropped as low as 10 percent of normal after stay-at-home orders, and is slow to recover as travel increases,” Michael Benjamin, chief of the Air Quality Planning and Science Division at the California Air Resources Board, told the committee.