DOJ employees call on agency to keep pandemic workplace flexibilities for long haul

An affinity group representing employees at the Justice Department is urging the agency to make permanent many of the workplace flexibilities leaders put in place for the pandemic — and set consistent policy guardrails across the organization.

The Biden administration gave agencies until July 19 to finalize agency reentry plans and urged them to “reimagine” their telework, remote work and other workplace flexibilities.

“As components develop their post-reentry workplace plans, DOJ GEN members are advocating, within their own components, for updated flexible work policies that are as expansive as their components’ missions allow,” the DOJ Gender Equality Network said in a June 21 letter to Lee Lofthus, assistant attorney general for the Justice Management Division.

Employees from individual DOJ subcomponents have sent similar letters to their own leaders. Some 500 DOJ employees in total have signed on to those letters, the group said, and it urged the department to consider their suggestions and feedback as it develops reentry plans this summer.

It’s ultimately up to each DOJ subcomponent to make workforce flexibilities available, and the Gender Equality Network acknowledged not all positions are conducive to telework. Correctional officers at the Bureau of Prisons, for example, can’t work from home.

But the group said the department should set a consistent baseline for telework and flexible work hours across the department, leaving it up to individual components and employees to work out the specifics based on their own missions and needs.

“If attorneys and paralegals in the Civil Division are permitted to telework four days per week, similarly situated attorneys and paralegals in the Antitrust Division should be granted the same flexibility,” DOJ GEN said. “We believe that consistency begets equity, and that workers’ ability to manage their work lives should not be constrained by leaders who create artificial limitations that are not supported by mission-related necessities.”

The Justice Department did not return a request for comment about the group’s letters.

Specifically, DOJ GEN is calling on the department to allow supervisors and employees to telework at least three days a week. It wants DOJ to modify its telework guidance so employees with older children at home can clearly continue to work remotely.

Employees within DOJ’s Civil Division recommended leadership allow up to four days of telework a week.

“We encourage the Civil Division to use telework as a recruitment tool,” employees wrote in a June 4 email to management. “To effectively attract new talent, we recommend permitting new hires to be eligible for telework immediately.”

The group recommended DOJ allow employees to work remotely from longer distances, at least under a trial period, and it urged the department to develop guidance and training for supervisors to ensure those who telework aren’t overlooked for hiring, promotions and other opportunities.

Employees within the department’s Civil Division, for example, asked their managers to consider training supervisors on how to manage and engage both remote and in-person staff.

“We have concerns that as workplaces transition to hybrid in-office and telework schedules, more men may return to offices while women opt to telework, a decision that could negatively affect advancement due to a continued negative stigma associated with telework,” DOJ Civil Division employees wrote in their letter management. “To minimize such stigma, supervisors should clearly communicate and publicly endorse the flexibilities and work schedule(s) that are available to their employees and contractors, along with their expectations for those electing to use any new flexibilities.”

Employees also urged DOJ to keep flexible work hour policies and schedules that were in place during the pandemic. If certain flexibilities like telework aren’t possible for certain employees, DOJ should consider whether subcomponents can offer other options instead.

Keeping telework and other workplace flexibilities will not only improve morale and employee engagement but also will make the department a more attractive place to work, DOJ GEN argued.

Before the pandemic, 5.5% of the DOJ workforce teleworked at least one day a week, according to the department’s 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results. About 29% of DOJ employees said they were unsatisfied with the department’s telework program then.

At the peak of the pandemic, 30% of DOJ employees teleworked every day, while 34% said they couldn’t work remotely because of the nature of their jobs.

In 2020, 17.1% of DOJ employees said they were unsatisfied with their telework program, according to the department’s latest FEVS results.

“Employees and contractors in the Civil Division lead full lives with demanding work schedules, and many of us have long struggled to balance heavy workloads with life out of the office,” employees wrote. “Many of us also have long, stressful commutes to our offices, spending two or more hours commuting on a typical workday. Over the last year, our eyes have been opened to that fact that we need not live in perpetual motion. In order to retain our skilled, diverse workforce, the civil division should embrace the tools we relied on over the last year and establish policies that permit significantly increased workplace flexibilities.”

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