At this point in the pandemic, federal employees are waiting. They’re waiting for that email from their supervisor or agency leader that says, “Hey, we’d like to see more of you back in the office.”
I’m oversimplifying it. We know many agencies are considering changes to their pre-pandemic remote work policies.
But as last week’s discussions on those new mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, returning to the office probably won’t be easy or simple.
Agencies, following internal guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, followed suit and mostly lifted mask mandates last week for fully-vaccinated federal employees, contractors and visitors at their facilities.
Some agencies, for example, explicitly stated that managers and supervisors can’t ask employees about their vaccination status. Other agencies said nothing about it.
The new mask guidelines have prompted some concern. Sure, it’s hard giving up a habit that you’ve grown accustomed to for the last year.
But perhaps more relevant to feds as they think about the future, there’s no real clear way to enforce this new policy. If there is, state and local governments, grocery stores and your agencies aren’t really sharing it yet.
So that begs the question: Do you trust that everyone in your office who’s not wearing a mask is fully vaccinated, as the guidelines say?
Will, as my colleague Mike Causey wondered, arguments break out if it’s revealed that someone isn’t following “the rules?” Does it even matter?
The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, led by the White House COVID-19 response team, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, did, as promised, issue a few answers to frequently-asked-questions about the new mask guidelines.
But they largely reiterate what OMB and other agencies have already said, and they don’t explain how agencies are supposed to enforce the new mask guidelines or handle sticky situations where someone chooses to not comply.
Maybe the extra guidance isn’t necessary, at least not immediately, with many feds still working from home?
Both the Office of Management and Budget and OPM were clear this last week. Maximum telework is still in place for most, and OMB isn’t showing its cards as to when that might change.
Meanwhile, when feds return to their offices is becoming a point of contention with some in Congress.
A handful of House Republicans are pressing OPM to bring federal employees back to their offices as soon as possible, including Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the government operations subcommittee.
He urged OPM last week to bring feds back to their offices quickly, while his Democrat counterpart on the subcommittee, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) essentially said, “not so fast.”
So what’s the big deal?
How agencies handle reopening could be a make-or-break moment for some feds, especially those close to or at retirement age.
Our own surveys of federal employees show the pandemic had an impact on how they think about their retirement plans. Retirements hit a 10-year low in 2020, and our surveys showed some feds did change their plans with finances, travel and overall state of the world up in the air.
Many, many feds in our comment section said they were waiting to see how their agencies handled telework arrangements once it was considered safe to return to the office.
“A lot depends on how much my agency pushes for everyone back in the office,” one person said in response to our winter retirement survey. “I hate the commute, and if they want everyone back five days a week that’s it for me.”
There were many statements like these.
“I was going to retire because I hate the commute,” another person said. “Now that we telework 100% of the time, I am staying. When telework ends I will go ahead and retire!”
OPM’s latest data from the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey also shows the pandemic had a slight impact on the way some feds think about their future plans.
Before the pandemic, 74% of feds said they had no plans to leave their agencies within the next year, according to the OPM survey. But after the pandemic, 69% said they didn’t consider leaving their organizations in the next year.
About 7% said they considered leaving government after the pandemic for retirement, compared to 6% before the health crisis.
And of those who said they considered leaving in the next year, 33% said their intentions to leave were because of the pandemic.
More than one-third, or 38%, of those whose retirement plans changed said they shifted because of the pandemic.
No, those aren’t huge numbers, and not everyone who once considered leaving or retiring will ultimately do so.
But agencies are competing — against the private sector and themselves — for talent. How they handle everything from future telework plans to office squabbles over masks could sway those on the fence.
Argentina has a nearly century-old tradition wherein the seventh child born to an Argentine family is eligible to become the godchild of the president. Even though this designation was historically reserved for Christian families, in 2014 the 21-year-old son of a rabbi, Iair Tawil, became the first Jewish presidential godson. Though there was an urban myth that Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner accepted the godmother title “to stop him from becoming a werewolf” because a separate Argentinian legend — that of the lobizón — which says that a seventh son is vulnerable to the curse. These claims were unsubstantiated.