NSF announces return-to-office changes before finishing negotiations, drawing union ire

National Science Foundation employees are expected to work in the office four days per pay period, starting in October. The announcement from management came pr...

Following weeks of return-to-office announcements, yet another agency has made its plans clear to currently teleworking employees.

But this time, the National Science Foundation has drawn negative attention from its union. NSF leaders made a return-to-office announcement to staff members Friday, prior to negotiating or reaching an agreement on telework with the American Federation of Government Employees, the federal union said.

Starting in October, all telework-eligible NSF employees and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) employees stationed at agency headquarters will have to work in the office at least four days per two-week pay period, NSF leaders said in an all-staff email, obtained by Federal News Network. The changes do not apply to employees eligible for remote work or those with an approved remote work agreement.

“We want to strengthen the NSF culture by increasing our time in person, while meeting our business needs and maintaining workplace flexibility,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan and Chief Operating Officer Karen Marrongelle said in the email.

The leaders called the end of the pandemic a “unique opportunity” to move forward with a permanent hybrid work schedule, while reestablishing the benefits of working in person. NSF chose to increase time spent in person “to ensure we meet NSF business needs while maintaining the flexibility for staff to balance their personal and professional lives,” an agency spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network.

Jesús Soriano, president of AFGE Local 3403, representing NSF employees, called the return-to-office announcement “non-sensical,” and pointed to increased efficiency of NSF staff members who were teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Maximum telework at NSF improved employee engagement and work-life balance, but now a decrease of telework will harm recruitment and retention, an area where NSF is already struggling, Soriano said.

“The leader is treating employees as numbers on a spreadsheet, instead of brilliant scientists and engineers and innovators who are critical for discharging the NSF mission,” Soriano told Federal News Network. “Return-to-building orders support a narrative that federal employees are not productive unless sitting in an office chair … [They] encourage resignations and divisiveness and make government work less attractive.”

In the all-staff email, Panchanathan and Marrongelle reminded staff that NSF does not have a maximum telework category for employees, and those flexibilities were only temporary as employees began office re-entry in 2022.

“We continue to maintain our commitment to building a more positive and collaborative culture at NSF,” the leaders said. “We are and will continue to assess the effectiveness of our policies and adapt as necessary.”

AFGE’s chapter at NSF did have a handful of informal discussions with management about telework, Soriano said, during which he proposed several flexibilities for employees. The union was in the process of preparing a counterproposal, but did not agree to any changes prior to the agency’s email announcement Friday.

NSF leaders said they will continue to negotiate with AFGE on additional flexibilities, including an exceptions or waiver policy, as well as an office space policy for the building. The agency management said the discussions with the union have been “productive.”

But Soriano pushed back, saying agency leadership was unilaterally imposing telework changes without fully negotiating. He requested a meeting with management to review and provide constructive feedback on the return-to-office announcement.

NSF’s announcement comes after the White House called on all agencies to update their work environment plans, measure productivity and adjust telework levels where needed. In response, many federal unions emphasized that bargaining agreements already in place outweigh the Office of Management and Budget memo from April.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture are two agencies that have, so far, announced increased in-person work only for managers and supervisors, while not making any changes for staff members or bargaining unit employees. The Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Agency for International Development have also announced return-to-office plans.

NSF’s changes to the telework policy will officially take effect Oct. 23. In the meantime, AFGE is drafting a “reasonable” counteroffer, Soriano said, and evaluating legal options.

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