VA’s decision to limit remote work puts all federal workers on notice

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ requirement that a small percentage of its full-time staff work from home to return to the office could be the first wave in a tsunami of federal workers resuming their pre-pandemic routines — or seeking new jobs. new jobs.

The future of the nearly 2 million government workforce hangs in the balance, including a total unknown who are still working remotely despite the coronavirus pandemic officially ending on May 11.

The Office of Personnel Management, which acts as the federal government’s human resources department, said nearly half of this group were working from home during the height of the national emergency, but the agency is only now beginning to find out. how many have still not returned.

Battle lines were drawn even before this data was collected. Republican lawmakers who were frequent critics of the federal workforce are decrying the continued flexibility of working from home as targeting lazy, entitled employees and demanding immediate changes.

Union officials in turn pledge to fight for improved quality of life for their members by pushing for the continued use of remote work, calling it a new reality for the US economy and not just a obsolete emergency authority.

On Wednesday, VA leaders announced plans to require headquarters staff based in the Washington, D.C. area to spend at least half of each workweek in the office, reversing coronavirus pandemic flexibility that allowed them to work completely from home. These new rules won’t come into effect until this fall and won’t completely wipe out remote work options for these people.

About 20% of the VA workforce is telecommuting eligible.

This decision has raised concerns among some union officials. “I’m not necessarily okay with our agreements going away because the secretary is now saying well, [come to the office] at least five days a week,” said Oscar L. Williams, Jr., second executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council.

At a press conference Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he plans to work closely with unions and regional offices on future changes, but said decisions on the status of other employees across the country would be taken in the coming months.

“One of the things I think we need to do is just take a step back, understand which positions are telecommuting, which positions are remote work, and how that aligns with the needs of our veterans,” he said. -he declares. “We are a veteran-centric organization, and we should make our decisions based on that rather than how decisions were made at the height of the pandemic.”

VA is the first agency to make such an announcement, but others seem set to follow with similar moves soon. In April, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young ordered all federal agencies to “update work environment plans, outlining their current telecommuting policies…and future changes. planned”.

Congress has pressured agencies to justify their telecommuting agreements in recent months, with hearings on the director of the Office of Personnel Management and various calls from lawmakers to cut the jobs of those who “don’t not showing up for work,” a phrase federal employees say insults the work they have been pursuing throughout the pandemic.

On May 19, Republicans on the Oversight Committee led by Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) sent letters to 25 federal agencies asking about their current office occupancy rates in Washington DC, their productivity and whether the union agreements had supplanted agency processes.

Vacant offices can be a motivating factor for branch managers to justify paying for empty real estate. The General Services Administration, the government owner, predicted in its 2024 budget a transition to “what will likely be a smaller, less expensive real estate footprint due to the way the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed operations. agencies”.

More than half of the leases held by the GSA expire within the next five years and the agencies are currently preparing their 2024-2028 investment plans. Yet the majority of the 24 agencies surveyed by the Government Accountability Office have not terminated any leases or allowed them to expire due to the pandemic.

The VA, notably, has reduced 178,000 square feet in six leases due to increased telecommuting, though that’s a small amount of space compared to the roughly 150 million square feet in its portfolio.

Employees have also attested countless times that working from home has been a boon to productivity because it reduces distractions, cuts down on travel, and allows workers to live where they can afford.

Veterans Crisis Line officials said in an Inspector General’s report that the transition to working from home during the pandemic “has improved staff morale and reduced the use of unscheduled leaves, as well as the position of the VCL to recruit additional staff and improve future service operations.”

Surveys of federal employees conducted by government and outside consultants have quantified the value of telecommuting to the workforce, but Republicans argue that the Biden administration has “provided no objective evidence regarding the impact of high teleworking”.

NVAC leaders said it’s likely the new rules will be applied on a case-by-case basis, so the full ramifications are not yet clear.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.

Molly Weisner is a reporter for the Federal Times, where she covers government labor, policy and contracts. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as an editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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