If the Biden administration isn’t going to get federal workers back into the office, a waste-watching senator says it’s time for the government to sell off desks.
Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, is calling on agencies to take a hard look at who they are still allowing to telework at this late stage of the pandemic, figure out if it makes sense to keep them at home, and if so, make sure taxpayers aren’t paying for their office space anymore.
That includes people like a Veterans Affairs Department manager in Atlanta who bragged on social media that he was logging in to a team staff meeting from home — from a bubble bath. To dispel any doubts, the manager posted a photo of the bubble bath and computer logged into the meeting.
Ms. Ernst said those sorts of outrages have Americans rightly questioning what’s going on.
“Folks, remote work should not be confused with flipping through channels with a TV remote,” the senator said.
Pandemic shenanigans is just part of what’s been a growing issue with management of federal workspace, and Ms. Ernst said it’s time the government gets a full handle on the people it hired, the places where they need to work, and where they actually are working.
She fired off letters to two dozen inspectors general asking them to review their agencies and figure it all out by studying use of access key cards and computer logins to figure out who’s working when and where.
“We should not be paying for office space that is not being used,” Ms. Ernst said in her letter to auditors.
In particular, Ms. Ernst asked investigators to scope out employees who had higher pay rates because worked in major cities, including the District of Columbia, but who shifted to telework from remote locations without taking pay cuts.
That some employees who used to come to the officer are still out of the office post-pandemic is not in dispute.
What is in dispute is how many.
One survey last fall of access key cards to federal buildings in the District of Columbia found just 5% of the pre-pandemic workforce swiped in on an average workday.
Meanwhile an Office of Personnel Management survey, also published last fall, found 46% of employees said they were back at a worksite some of the time, and 36% were fully back to their regular in-office schedules.
Kiran Ahuja, OPM’s director, told Congress this spring that she thought the rate was up to more than half of federal employees by that time, but she couldn’t say how much more.
She also couldn’t say what the telework numbers were before the pandemic.
And it’s unclear that employees who are working from home are actually working. A review last year of one department’s logins found as many as 30% of remote employees “did not appear to be working” at any given time during the work day.
Ms. Ernst said the public data on work locations is weak.
She worked with OpenTheBooks.com, which studies government spending data, to analyze the federal workforce. But the government refuses to list work locations of more than 250,000 employees. While some are in law enforcement agencies, others are at the IRS, the Small Business Administration or Health and Human Services.
“Our auditors estimate it’s $36 billion worth of salary and bonus compensation to employees we cannot meaningfully hold accountable. We don’t know who they are, what they do, whether they are in fact working 40 hours, or from where they’re phoning in,” said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.
President Biden in his 2022 State of the Union address said he would push to get employees back into offices, and he officially ended the pandemic emergency in May.
But OPM says negotiations over returning to work are more complicated than simple orders, and involve negotiations between each agency and its workforce — usually through a labor union that represents them.
Still, the lack of return has created friction between the Biden administration and some usual allies, such as District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose city is struggling without the federal workers who used to populate coffee shops and convenience stores.
The White House earlier this month told agencies to “aggressively” work to get employees back to offices this fall.
Ms. Ernst said it was particularly galling to have employees “phoning it in” while passport delays build at the State Department, Social Security beneficiaries struggle to get through to employees by phone and veterans end up on lengthy wait lists for appointments.
She said there are bigger systemic issues, though.
The Government Accountability Office reported to Congress last month on a study looking at 24 large agencies and how they use their office space. GAO investigators said 17% of them had usage rates of just 25% or less at their headquarters buildings in the first quarter of this year.
Even the top-performing agencies still only used about half of their capacity, GAO said.
A senior GAO official told Congress that the country’s emergence from the pandemic offers the government a “unique opportunity” to right-size its office space.