Take a good look at your alarm clock, federal employees. It’s about to become your worst enemy. It’s 5 a.m. chirping will soon jolt you out of the slumber you’ve likely grown accustomed to. Earlier wake up times are in your future if you’re a fed who has to commute to the office after the Biden administration announced that federal employees would do so starting in April. Across the country, guidance on masking and testing is relaxing as transmission rates of COVID-19 continue to drop.
Federal News Network asked federal employees on Reddit how they were planning to return to their commute. Responses ranged from thrilled to devastated, with many commenters saying they are updating their resumes and looking for work elsewhere. One commenter simply responded with, “Crying.”
So enthusiasm for the return to the office is not universal. And while there are those disappointed about coming back to the office, for a lot of feds, the option to telework was never or rarely available.
For those that are returning, the commute was once a mainstay of work-life measured in minutes and miles, but the pandemic dramatically shortened it to seconds and inches.
For the week of March 7, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) measured between 88% to 109% increase in weekday rail ridership over the same dates in 2021. Kristie Swink Benson, a WMATA spokesperson, said they are at 30% of their ridership from pre-pandemic.
In Ogden, Utah, where the federal government employs about 6.3% of its workforce and where the IRS has a large facility, ridership on the Utah Transit Authority’s system has recovered 90% to 100% of its pre-COVID service level, Carl Arky, spokesperson for UTA, said.
“Going by the pre-COVID ridership data for the Ogden area, UTA anticipates having enough capacity to accommodate workers returning to buildings in downtown Ogden,” Arky said. He added that the UTA is also starting service on a special bus line that services the IRS facility.
In Washington, D.C., WMATA is ramping up the cleaning of its railcars and stations in preparation for increased ridership. They have also installed advanced air filtration systems that circulate fresh air in the car every three minutes.
Doesn’t fresh air help you stay awake?
WMATA still faces challenges, though. With a derailment back in October 2021 leading to the removal of about 60% of their rail fleet, the capital’s metro system will be put to the test as federal employees begin to utilize it again. WMATA is also planning on closing down a bridge that connects the Yellow Line between downtown Washington and Virginia in September. That work is expected to last seven to eight months.
“I just want everyone to remember that these projects are improvements to the system,” Benson said. “And it allows us to continue to serve customers, even though the temporary shutdown, I think, can definitely be challenging for people who are trying to get around.”
TriMet, the transit authority for Portland, Oregon, expects to see ridership increase as well. Portland is home to a high concentration of federal employees — approximately 5.8% of employment in the city is federal, compared to Washington, D.C., which has about 8.9% federal employment. Spokesman Tyler Graf said they are seeing riders slowly return.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve adjusted our service and made operational changes to keep people moving, all while working to protect people’s health. This will continue as more commuters return,” Graf said.
Commuting is a ritual that many Americans stopped practicing during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will take time to get back into the swing of things. To help with that adjustment, WMATA is encouraging riders to utilize their Trip Planner web app for the latest information.
“I would just say, definitely give yourself time to get to the station so that you’re not flustered or rushed. Especially if you haven’t used … your SmarTrip card or you know if it’s been a while since you’ve been to the station,” Benson said.
Speaking of SmarTrip cards, D.C.-area commuters, give yourself extra time on your first commute because your SmarTrip card may not work. Cards purchased before 2012 stopped working after March 1. If you want to salvage whatever balance you had left on it, you will need to make your way to the Metro Sales Office in Metro Center Station, and be ready to wait in line.
Masks are also still required on public transit across the country, even in areas where the city or state have lifted indoor mask mandates.
“The federal TSA mandate requires that masks still be worn on public transportation through April 18,” Graf said. “We will continue to provide free masks onboard for those who don’t have one.”
Federal employees should also remember to take advantage of programs that will help them save money on their commutes. If taking public transit, the government offers a benefit program called TRANServe. This program is not just for those living and working in the National Capital Region, it is for all federal employees. Whether you take the BART in San Francisco or the People Mover in Detroit, this subsidy is available to you. The program is limited to subsidizing commutes between home and the federal office, so be sure to use a separate transit card if you use it.
And as the weather turns warmer across the country, those who opt to use a bicycle to get to work are allowed to apply for a $20 per month Active Bicycle Commuting Subsidy for “bicycle related clothing, helmet, gear, etc.” If you do use this program, be sure to save your receipts, as they are required to receive this taxable fringe benefit.
Finally, commuters should seriously consider updating their sleep schedule before returning to the office. One of the top comments from our Reddit post came from someone returning to work a few times a month starting in April.
“I’ve been getting an extra hour of sleep every day for the last two years because of full time teleworking,” they said. “I’m working on going to sleep a bit earlier and getting used again to waking up 1-1.5 hours earlier than I’ve had to.”