AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
When President Joe Biden assumed office in 2020, he made it explicitly clear that ending the pandemic and getting Americans back to work was his main priority. At the time, it seemed natural to assume that these plans included federal government workers whom Biden now directly oversees. However, nearly a year later, even with 90% of all federal employees now vaccinated, most federal employees are still working from home. Even as the rest of the country returns to work, the sprawling complexes of massive federal buildings in the heart of Washington D.C. are mostly empty. The streets are deserted, and coffee shops and restaurants are still struggling to stay afloat due to the decrease in foot traffic. The Deep State has become the Asleep State, leading many Republican lawmakers to question the delay in getting government workers—who are still collecting their full salaries—back on the job.
If there is one federal agency that undoubtedly should be showing up for work, it would be the Centers for Disease Control. However, in a hearing last month, Bidens CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, inadvertently let slip that it’s far from “business as usual ” for federal employees under her leadership. According to Senator Bill Cassidy who questioned her, more than 75% of CDC’s federal employees were still working remotely and not in their office. While Walensky declined to confirm the Senator’s figures directly, she affirmed that essential lab employees were coming in but otherwise failed to provide any clear guidance as to how or when the rest of the staff would be returning to in-person full-time work.
The problem doesn’t stop with the CDC – and it doesn’t appear that telework is going anywhere soon. The U.S. Federal Office of Personnel Management made it very clear that, as far as the federal government is concerned, remote work is here to stay. Under Biden, for the first time since 2011, OPM revised its telework policy to explicitly encourage Government Agencies to “expand telework, remote work permanently.”
The prospect of widespread, permanent telework raises several questions about the fulfillment of federal agencies’ missions—questions of fiscal responsibility, cybersecurity, privacy, and good government. It certainly must strike many Americans as galling that, while the Biden administration is pushing to fire unvaccinated workers from their jobs, fully vaccinated federal employees are not even being mandated to show up for work.
Evidence is already piling up that telework policies are affecting the productivity and effectiveness of federal bureaucracies (to the extent that they were ever effective, to begin with). As of early November, Americans were waiting 12 to 18 weeks to get a passport – a process that normally takes just 4 to 6 weeks. The IRS also had yet to process 6.8 million 2020 tax returns; there were more than 182,000 outstanding claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Social Security recipients were citing a “dire need” for in-person appointments. Newly married women seeking to change their names are being advised that if they send in their identification for the paperwork, they cannot be guaranteed when they will get it back. All of this prompted more than 40 Senators to pen a letter to government agencies urging them to return to in-person work, citing “widespread lack of responsiveness and accessibility across the federal government on account of current agency work plans.”
Government bureaucrats may also be taking advantage of expanded telework to receive more pay than they should. Salary for government employees is directly tied to where their office is located. As many offices are located in Washington D.C. or other large cities, federal employees receive salaries that are significantly higher than much of the country due to the higher cost of living. However, since the pandemic began, many federal workers have completely relocated out of the capital and settled in areas with far lower costs of living. Despite this, they continued to earn an income that was tied to the cost of living in the D.C. Metro area.
Instead of working to curb this clear exploitation of the system, OPM has announced that those federal employees who are eligible to return to the office only need to be present two days out of every pay period to qualify for D.C.-based income. In theory, an employee could live in a rural, low-income, part of the country and be paid at D.C. rates so long as they show up in the office every two weeks. And this policy only applies to employees who are eligible to return to the office; many are still not required to be in office, even if they are vaccinated or otherwise at low risk from the virus.
At a time in which Biden finds himself struggling to fulfill his campaign promises and even ensure basic government functions, mandating federal employees return to the office seems like an obvious decision. Biden has given no medical or practical reason as to why he refuses to ask the humungous taxpayer-funded workforce under his supervision to appear regularly in the office. One theory floated by some conservative commentators is that the overwhelming majority of federal employees are progressively inclined and vote Democrat. With President Biden’s sinking poll numbers, he may want to avoid offending one of the few reliable bases he has left.
Regardless, some legislators refuse to wait for President Biden to take the initiative. Subcommittee on Government Operations Ranking Member Jody Hice (R-Ga.), has aggressively called on Inspectors General to “assess the impact of telework on federal agencies’ mission, employee performance, and service to the American people during the pandemic.” He further stated that “thanks to Operation Warp Speed, millions of Americans are safely returning to the workplace,” but that it is “clear that the unprecedented number of federal employees working remotely has significantly contributed to massive delays, inefficiencies, and declines in performance – all to the detriment of American taxpayers.”
The issue of the federal government’s return to the office arises as the reconciliation bill currently being debated in the Senate proposes adding thousands of new bureaucrats to agencies like the IRS and the Department of Labor. The Biden administration’s reasoning for these expansions is to assist in “enforcement activities” and to better help agencies meet their statutory missions. But a good first step in increasing the effectiveness of the federal bureaucracy, rather than making it even more bloated and expensive, might be to make sure the federal employees already on the payroll are actually doing their jobs.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in D.C. at the intersection of politics and culture.