Long after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared over and the government said federal employees would return to in-person work, government building occupancy data shows that the Department of Labor headquarters had so few employees return that each employee had an average allocation of 1600 square feet of office space. That’s considerably larger than the average Washington, D.C., residence.
The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project obtained 11 pages of documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for occupancy data for U.S. Department of Labor office buildings. The documents reveal low occupancy rates and low daily average usage of the department’s headquarters building, the Frances Perkins Building. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news and commentary outlet.)
In his 2022 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden stated, “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people.”
The federal Office of Management and Budget further directed agencies in April 2023 to update their current telework policies and establish updated plans to increase the return of federal employees to the workplace post-pandemic, following the administration’s declaration that the pandemic was over in April.
Monthly averages for employees’ use of the Frances Perkins Building reveal an allocation of roughly 1600 square feet per person, based on the daily average of employees in attendance.
The General Services Administration, as of 2011, had established a federal benchmark of 190 usable square feet per person.
Even with all of this unused real estate, the department has sought an extra $109 million in appropriations from Congress for the fiscal year 2023.
This underlying lack of utilization of Labor’s headquarters building raises questions about the department’s commitment to sound financial management—having averaged just 1015 employees per day in person in the month of September. For the prior five months, from April through August, the average was 949 per day. Previous records of historical utilization rates from 1996-2000 show about 3,000-4,000 employees and contractors a day.
This correlates to recent reporting from the Government Accountability Office from July highlighting the low utilization of many federal headquarters buildings throughout 2023. One telling fact from the report: “Seventeen of the 24 federal agencies in GAO’s review used an estimated average 25% or less of their headquarters buildings’ capacity in a three-week sample period across January, February, and March of 2023.”
The report also stated, “Underutilized office space has financial and environmental costs. Federal agencies spend about $2 billion a year to operate and maintain federal office buildings regardless of the buildings’ utilization.”
Further, a General Services Administration report from July 2022 highlighted average daily occupancy rates of just 29% for GSA-administered buildings. GSA further stated in the same report, that only “40% [of federal agencies] are using their occupancy and financial data to inform [financial and other operational] decisions.”
Previous FOIA requests by Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project have highlighted that many agencies are not in compliance with directives to get employees physically back to work, have not updated their telework policies since the pandemic as directed, or simply have failed to track building occupancy rates.
The Department of Labor further confirmed that 100% of employees in the department’s Office of the Inspector General are covered by telework agreements as of this past April. This is of particular concern, as inspectors general are tasked with oversight of their respective departments and agencies, which requires in-person investigations, coordination, and physical presence at agency locations.
The Department of Labor’s congressional budget documents state that the department “promotes the welfare of workers, job seekers, and retirees by helping them improve their skills, find work, and get back on their feet after job loss, injury, or illness.” This mission statement is far removed from economic reality, as even the department itself has not managed to get its own employees physically back to the office post-pandemic.
Colin Aamot is an investigative columnist at The Daily Signal and an investigator within The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project. He was a psychological operations planner with the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command.
Reprinted with Permission from The Daily Signal – By Colin Aamot