The leader of the Biden administration’s human resources agency this week defended federal workers’ extensive use of telework during the pandemic and said COVID proved that federal workers are able to get the job done from their homes.
“In my opinion, face time is not a proxy for performance,” Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Kiran Ahuja told House lawyers on Thursday. “We actually need to utilize these workplace flexibilities in order to take advantage of what we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, that we’ve actually seen greater engagement by employees. We’ve seen increased productivity and performance.”
Ahuja spoke at the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, where she said telework delivers benefits both to the government and to its nearly 2 million employees.
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“These benefits include increased productivity, higher employee engagement, lower employee attrition, expanded recruitment pools, and cost savings for both agencies and employees,” she said.
Ahuja added that while federal workers are now back in the office more than they were during the pandemic, the government needs to make sure it keeps offering work-from-home options to keep the federal workforce happy.
“Healthy, high-performing organizations are necessary to provide the American public the service they deserve, and agency efforts to evaluate and assess their organization’s health and organizational performance, including the impact of work arrangements, must be robust and ongoing,” she said.
In response to questions from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Ahuja said current guidance from OPM is that federal agencies should assess whether telework arrangements or other policies are needed to help federal employees “deliver on mission for the American people.”
When asked if that guidance would be tightened after President Biden’s expected decision to end the COVID emergency in May, Ahuja said it would not—a reply that seemed to worry even Connolly, who represents thousands of federal workers in his northern Virginia district.
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“If the president of the United States is saying the emergency is over, I assure you my friends on the other side of the aisle, probably joined by a fair number of people on this side of the aisle, are going to expect that the workplace requirements change with that change,” he said. “The same guidance can’t be true in June of this year as it was true in, say, the depths of the pandemic in early 2020.”
Republicans used the hearing to stress that federal workers have had it far too easy already and need to return to the office, and many said the growing number of complaints with slow federal service is likely being caused by overly relaxed telework policies.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., asked a series of questions about how many federal workers are still working remotely and how many might continue to do so when the COVID emergency ends, but Ahuja didn’t know. She also couldn’t answer questions from Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., about how many federal workers moved away from the Washington, DC, area to work remotely, and whether they are still being paid a higher salary to reflect higher costs of living in the nation’s capital region.
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“We shouldn’t be paying DC locality pay for people who are not working in DC,” Palmer said.
Republicans have been working to hold federal workers’ feet to the fire on telework since they took control of the House. On Feb. 1, House Republicans passed a bill to require federal agencies to end their COVID-era telework policies and force staff to return to the office — a bill that just three Democrats supported and 205 opposed.
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“Federal agencies are falling short of their missions,” Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., said on the House floor in February. “They are not carrying out their duties. They are failing the American people.”