The great agency reopening debates continue

The old adage, “You can’t please everyone,” mostly certainly applies to the debate that’s still brewing over reopening federal offices.

Agencies had until last Monday to submit workforce reentry plans to the White House for review. The White House set that deadline almost two months ago, back when the state of the pandemic was certainly looking up.

I’m no epidemiologist, but it seems things have taken a turn since early June. Now, agencies are submitting reentry plans into an environment that looks different from the one in which they began drafting them.

The back-and-forth dance that we’ve done for the last 16 months with this pandemic continues, and it’s complicating a longstanding debate about the status of federal offices.

Federal employees, however, have been through this drill before. Agencies published reopening plans last spring and summer with phased, target dates for employees to the return to the office.

In some cases, some feds did go back, at least for a little while, until the fall COVID surge. Others have been working from home this whole time. That prompted a debate even last summer. For some, agency reopening plans were dangerous. For others, agencies were moving dangerously slow to reopen.

Today, agencies are surveying employees, holding listening sessions and talking to their unions about the path forward. They’re trying to figure out how to collect information about the vaccination statuses of their employees without prying. Yes, they’re trying to reopen, but the approach is different this time.

The Agriculture Department brought a few hundred employees back to its offices in Washington, D.C. last summer under its phased reopening plan. Not everyone was thrilled, or comfortable.

On Monday, USDA told employees the earliest it would begin phasing employees back into its offices was Oct. 1, and that’s only if the planning and collective bargaining are finished — and it’s safe.

Employees will have at least 45 days’ advance notice before returning to the office, compared with the two weeks or so USDA gave most workers last summer.

Agency reentry plans will be flexible, USDA said, and employees who return to the office and are eligible can telework — for up to four days a week.

“Our planning includes consideration of the support that employees and supervisors will need to thrive in our new future together, such as training, technology, tools, engagement with each other and consideration for the many real-world needs facing our workforce and their families, from child care, to elder care, to transportation and more,” USDA’s frequently asked questions about its reentry and future of work plans read. “While agency-specific mission needs drive our planning, USDA is taking an enterprise approach to mission support functions such as information technology, human resources, and financial management. This is to ensure that employees performing similar functions across USDA mission areas are treated in a fair and equitable manner.”

I don’t say this to suggest that one approach is better than other. But no doubt, things are different this time. And everyone has an opinion about how it’s going.

House Republicans have been most vocal. They’re pressuring the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration to let agencies bring more feds back ASAP.

From their perspective, they see backlogs at the National Archives and Records Administration and field questions from constituents having trouble reaching the Social Security Administration as reasons to bring employees back… yesterday.

In a letter to OMB, OPM and GSA, 15 House Republicans essentially told agencies to get on with it, and skip the bargaining or the promise to give employees at least one month’s advance notice.

Mask mandates are gone, the vaccines work, and infection rates, they wrote on July 16, have been “low to nonexistent for months.”

Of course, the infection data is changing, throwing new worries about vaccines, masks and everything else into the mix. Perhaps it’s why agencies like USDA, the Labor Department and others are setting tentative reentry dates into the fall, giving the pandemic time to, again, change course.

Those dates won’t please everyone, and they could change as agencies juggle their missions, their people and everything in between.

In recent years the phrase, “people first, mission always,” has become popular among human capital leaders in government. Turns out that direction is easier said than done — especially during a global pandemic.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

In 1960 at the Rome Olympic games, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the 26-mile marathon by 200 meters all while running barefoot the entire race. He became the first Black African in Olympic history to win a gold medal.

Source: IOC

Related Stories

    Amelia Brust, Federal News Networktelework, work at home, office, federal employee

    Agencies begin setting tentative reentry dates for federal employees

    Read more
    (Getty Images/iStockphoto/AmmentorpDK)federal telework

    Remote work arrangements spark new questions about old federal workforce policies

    Read more
    (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Rawpixel Ltd)Business Meeting

    What remote work successes mean for agencies and their physical footprint

    Read more


Your Turn with Mike Causey


Learn about everything from pay, benefits and retirement, to buyouts, COLAs and pay freezes. Call the show live Wednesdays from 10-11 a.m. at 202-465-3080 with your questions. Dial 605-562-0264 to listen live from any phone. Follow Mike on Twitter and send him an email with your questions and comments. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Podcast One.

Sign up for breaking news alerts


Sep 17, 2021 Close Change YTD*
L Income 23.2077 -0.0415 4.43%
L 2025 12.0240 -0.0418 8.33%
L 2030 42.5522 -0.1952 10.54%
L 2035 12.7953 -0.0643 11.50%
L 2040 48.4773 -0.2641 12.46%
L 2045 13.2947 -0.0772 13.28%
L 2050 29.1552 -0.1795 14.12%
L 2055 14.3671 -0.1053 17.18%
L 2060 14.3671 -0.1053 17.18%
L 2065 14.3671 -0.1054 17.18%
G Fund 16.6644 0.0006 0.88%
F Fund 21.0666 -0.0298 -0.55%
C Fund 66.6676 -0.6128 21.56%
S Fund 85.0861 -0.0794 16.31%
I Fund 39.4469 -0.3006 11.70%
Closing price updated at approx 6pm ET each business day. More at
* YTD data is updated on the last day of the month.