When the pandemic hit, the federal government and several agencies enabled workers to work from home or via telework, setting a precedent for many businesses and offices across the country. However, now that many federal employees have been vaccinated, according to White House data, and the threat of COVID-19 has subsided, many federal employees who are being told to return to work are wondering about their future teleworking choices.
While working from home has several advantages and disadvantages, many agencies have already stated their intention to keep some type of remote/teleworking capabilities. Better and more trustworthy data on how teleworking works outside of the pandemic would aid the federal government is preparing for future emergencies and provide guidance quicker.
On the other hand, some organizations are keen for employees to return to the office, claiming that teleworking makes regular operations such as hiring, training, and maintaining security considerably more difficult. Given the burden on network bandwidth, IT equipment shortages, and reported lower engagement from employees who struggled to maintain a good work-life balance, the room appears to be split on whether allowing employees to telework should be a priority moving ahead.
The Office of Personnel Management has released a new report on federal agencies’ use of telework during the pandemic’s peak in 2020. While the Office of Personnel Management has published teleworking reports for over a decade, this year’s study is particularly significant since it included figures that showed what worked well and was done appropriately during the pandemic, as well as what might be improved upon in the future.
Some highlights from the report include:
- In 2020, telework saved the government $180 million. Fewer travel expenses, reduced absenteeism, human capital, utilities, office space, and training were the most prevalent cost savings.
- In 2020, 45% of all government employees teleworked, a 23% increase from years prior.
- In 2020, 90% of workers who were qualified for telework did so, a 34% increase.
- In a two-week period, the majority of teleworkers teleworked for three or more days. A smaller portion of employees teleworked 1–2 days every two weeks. And only a small percentage of those teleworked no more than once a month.
Recent Legislation Against Teleworking
Despite the rising use of telework, some members of Congress have filed legislation to restore federal agency teleworking regulations to what they were before the COVID-19 outbreak. The Return to Work Act, presented by Congressman Andy Biggs, would accomplish just that, restoring agency teleworking policies to what they were in December 2019.
In a press release, Biggs stated that “the majority of Americans have returned to work. There’s no excuse for federal agencies to continue to have a strict telework schedule for their employees. By not coming to the office, federal agencies have created a backlog of service requests. This backlog has prevented many Americans, especially our veterans, from receiving the service and care they need. ”
While Biggs was not the first to demand agencies’ teleworking regulations be reversed, an increasing number of politicians are echoing his thoughts by pushing federal employees to return to work. Many federal employees, on the other hand, have expressed a desire to continue using their agency’s teleworking policy.
What Options are There for Federal Employees?
One of the most often asked issues about teleworking is whether or not an agency may unilaterally terminate a teleworking arrangement. Unless there are extenuating circumstances that must be rectified within departmental and agency regulations, supervisors should allow workers to continue teleworking within the parameters of their telework agreement at this time.
This means that federal employees who teleworked during the pandemic may be eligible for telework in the future, at least on a situational basis, unless one of the limitations under 5 USC 6502(a)(2) applies or the agency determines that telework has harmed employee performance or agency operations (5 USC 6502(b)(1)). If an employee disagrees with their agency’s decision to grant or terminate their telework agreement, they should file a grievance under their collective bargaining agreement.
If an employee requires telework due to a disability, telework may be considered a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In light of the drive to return to the office, a federal employee may consider presenting a reasonable accommodation, if appropriate, to maintain and facilitate work at home/telework schedule.
The conversation and policies around teleworking are expected to evolve in the coming months, so federal employees should stay in touch with their managers and understand the terms of their remote work agreements to avoid any surprises.
Employees and their federal employers should also be aware of their overtime regulations. Exempt personnel in executive, administrative, or professional jobs who make more than $684 per week, for example, must have any extra hours authorized or approved in advance to be properly rewarded. Establishing the perfect balance between life and work can be tough with the availability of telework, and employees need to be aware of how to effectively navigate this new and growing arena.
If you have additional questions about what your rights are when it comes to telework, consider seeking proper legal advice today.
Esther Gabriel is an associate attorney in Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Syracuse office. Her practice focuses primarily on federal labor and employment law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (888)-529-4543.