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Biden admin may have fed workers remain remote after pandemic, but it could create more problems

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The Biden administration is considering allowing federal employees who worked remotely from home during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue doing so permanently.

Describing it as “a sweeping cultural change that would have been unthinkable a year ago,” The Washington Post reported Monday that details of the plan are still being worked out, and it’s not clear yet how many federal workers the change, if it is enacted, would affect.

The reporter, Lisa Rein, went on to attack former President Donald Trump, writing that his administration “dialed back work-from-home programs” that expanded somewhat during the Obama years. She then falsely accused Trump of referring to all federal workers as “the swamp” when in fact that was his nickname for the political establishment.

Nevertheless, Rein said that the coronavirus has led to a reimagining of the federal workforce after it became apparent that workers could function adequately and efficiently working from home.

“Notice of the change is expected in June, when the administration is set to release long-awaited guidance to agencies about when and how many federal employees can return to the office – likely in hybrid workplaces that combine in-person and at-home options,” Rein reported, citing memos and other materials obtained by the Post. “The bulletin is expected to address remote work policies in the immediate and long term.”

A senior administration official said of the upcoming changes: “We anticipate this guidance will leave room for decision-making at departments and agencies, to provide maximum flexibility for defining work requirements to meet mission and workforce needs.”

Already, some federal agencies have announced they will give current employees and future hires the option of working remotely, including the Department of Agriculture, according to Secretary Tom Vilsack who told employees during his first town hall with them in March he will allow remote work for up to four days per week.

Vilsack also said the use of remote duty stations and virtual sites would be expanded, and schedules would be flexed as well, though the department “had been the first under Trump to slash what had been a robust telework program” established during President Barack Obama’s second term, Rein reported.

“This will allow us to recruit and retain the absolute best talent, which will make USDA an employer of choice,” spokesman Matt Herrick told the paper, adding that telework requests have become the “number one question employees ask.”

How much time federal employees will be allowed to work remotely will depend on the various agencies, Rein reported. That said, many federal jobs require on-site participation and are not subject to remote working conditions.

Before the pandemic, the share of the federal workforce operating remotely was about 3 percent; that rose to 59 percent during the pandemic.

And like their private-sector colleagues, federal workers who had always reported to an office had to adjust to working from home as agencies scrambled to supply workers with the equipment they would need to do their jobs.

Having more of the 2.1 million federal employees working from home is bound to have some of the same negative effects as have occurred in the private sector. For instance, while benefits such as reduced traffic and congestion are positives, a number of businesses like local food carts, restaurants, and shops were dependent on downtown foot traffic supplied by office workers. Having more of them work remotely will impact those businesses and could lead many to close altogether.

There is also concern that keeping workers remote will lead to a glut of empty commercial real estate, leaving owners holding large mortgages with no rental income and leading to a rash of foreclosures.

As for federal workers, the Post noted there will be additional challenges.

“Agencies will … have to wrestle with how to track performance, whether to continue paying premiums for those living in expensive cities and how to be fair to those working in jobs that do not qualify for remote work,” Rein wrote.

“It’s going to give some employees a sense that there are haves and have-nots,” Jeff Neal, a former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and founder of the blog ChiefHRO.com, told the paper.

“Someone commuting to an aircraft plant will think, ‘You get to sit home in your bunny slippers working at your computer, while I’m stuck in traffic on my commute,’” he added.

Jon Dougherty

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