One crucial group at the Justice Department isn’t happy with the return-to-the-office plan

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The Justice Department has laid out its plans to have employees return to their offices. It stresses maximum telework. But one group says actual telework policies are all over the place, depending on which office you work in. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the vice president of the Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Adam Hanna.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: All right. So what is what are you hearing officially from Justice with respect to telework? Because I think your group wants that flexibility. But what is Justice saying?

Adam Hanna
Sure, it was reported yesterday that the Justice Department has decided to shift away from its pandemic policy of maximum telework back to something I suppose more normal. Specific guidance for individual components has not been released yet. But the department has announced that offices must give at least 30 days notice to employees and their change and their shift back to more normal telework policies.

Tom Temin: And what are more normal telework policies? Never? As much as you want? Or two days a week?

Adam Hanna: They vary widely. And that is one of the reasons that the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) is engaged on this issue. We found that folks in some offices have wide latitude and discretion to telework when they feel that they can reasonably do so. And other offices severely limit telework to as little as one day a month or no telework at all. And NAAUSA is taking the position that there ought to be a national floor on telework of two days a week. Attorneys have proven through this pandemic that we have the ability to effectively and efficiently do our jobs from home. And while we recognize that it’s important to be in the office, it’s important to have that culture of working together and being a team. There are many tasks that assistant U.S. attorneys undertake on a daily basis that they can do from home. So that’s what we’re asking for. It’s just a national minimum of two days a week at home.

Tom Temin: And for the duration of the pandemic, has most of the assistant U.S. attorneys mostly been out of the office? Correct?

Adam Hanna: That is correct. Now, everybody knows there’s times that you have to be in the office to meet with people or to take depositions or to be in court. So everybody understands that there are certainly times where you can’t do your job from your home office. But yes, most assistant U.S. attorneys had been working from home, I would say the majority of the time since March of 2020. And the Justice Department has been supportive of that. They really had an effective pivot to telework back in in 2020. And I think have supported employees well in that, but I think they see that now is the time to make a shift back to more normal circumstances.

Tom Temin: So with respect to access to the applications and the data that you need. You’ve had that all along from the telework situation.

Adam Hanna: Correct. Now, of course, there are some exceptions to that, folks who work in national security, for example, may not be able to fully do their their jobs from an alternative worksite. But the vast majority of AUSAs had access to laptop computers and the necessary security protocols to access their desktops from home. And I think everybody has proven that their jobs can be done very effectively in this way.

Tom Temin: And you surveyed members recently, they got about 700 AUSAs to answer. What were some of the highlights of what they’re saying about their work and their work situation?

Adam Hanna: So it’s clear from the survey that telework is an important issue for AUSAs because of the response that we got. 700 AUSAs gave us their thoughts. About 47% of folks who responded to our survey had at least 10 years of service in the department. And as of the date of the survey, which was between August and September of 2021, about 70% of respondents had an unlimited ability to telework at that time. 95% of people who responded said that they were able to successfully do their jobs while teleworking. 90% responded that teleworking at least two days a week would increase their satisfaction with their job.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Adam Hanna, vice president for the Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. And I’m a little surprised that the policy is that capricious with respect to I guess the administrative officer of each individual Justice office?

Adam Hanna: Sure, you know, you have to understand that the United States attorneys are presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed officials and they have great discretion in how they run their offices. But on this point, we feel that some uniformity is important. It’s important to keep AUSAs is competitive with the private legal market. We know that many of our counterparts in the private sector, as big law announces their return to office plans. It’s not asking very much, I think, I don’t think to be in the two day a week camp. As the United States attorney system, we need to be able to recruit and retain the best and brightest attorneys because we go up against those big law firms all the time, both in competing for talent and in the litigation that we’re engaged in.

And is it your sense that big law firms and law firms in general, and Lord knows there’s enough of them, are generally more sympathetic to regular couple days a week telework for attorneys now, forever?

I think so. I think at least for the immediate future, what we’re seeing in the legal media is that most large law firms are permitting attorneys to work from home, at least two days a week, some are allowing even more. Some large firms have have announced that they’re going to go to work from anywhere indefinitely. So I don’t think we want to be that aggressive. I think there’s a good reason to have people back in the office. But we’re shooting for that two day a week mark.

Tom Temin:
Yes, because most law establishments have gotten rid of the library that you used to need, because isn’t everything online now?

Adam Hanna: Yeah, Tom, that’s absolutely right. So much of what assistant U.S. attorneys do is legal research and writing, meaning that we’re glued to our computers, we’re on legal research platforms like LexisNexis and Westlaw. And some of the work is actually done better from home. You can have a quiet environment, if you need to write an appellate brief. Sometimes it’s just really nice to be able to close the door in your home office, and just focus on what you’re doing away from the ringing phones and the office chatter that you have when you’re at work. So I think there’s certainly some submission enhancements that come out of expanded telework. And I think a lot of people feel that it helps them do their job even better than before.

Tom Temin: And given the administration’s stated imperatives or desires, and what the Office of Personnel Management has been saying, it would seem that maybe Attorney General Garland can simply say, look, this is going to be the policy for all of our offices, and you appointees just have to stick with it. Any signal any sign that that’s even a possibility?

Adam Hanna: Well, we remain optimistic that department leadership is going to strongly encourage the components to allow expanded telework. Now, we understand that different offices in different components perhaps have different needs. Like I mentioned earlier, national security work, for example, sometimes can’t be done outside of a secure facility. So I think that there does have to be some level of discretion at the component level, but for example, United States attorney’s offices across the board, we’ve taken the position that the deputy attorney general or the attorney general should direct United States attorneys to allow staff to work at least two days a week from home.

Tom Temin: And just a final question, while we have you the last time we spoke you were looking at the issue and seeking some kind of pay parity with attorneys and other federal agencies that are on the general schedule, unlike the U.S. assistant attorneys are on their own pay scale in the Justice Department. Any movement on that? Any progress there?

Adam Hanna: We’ve continued to have a good dialogue with executive office for United States attorneys. And I think that they recognize there’s an issue here. However, since there are still many vacancies in the United States attorney positions and there’s not yet a reconstituted attorney general’s advisory committee, we get the sense that it may still be some time before the department makes a move on this issue. But we’re optimistic that they’re listening and that they’re going to do the right thing for AUSAs.

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