President Joe Biden is calling for more federal employees to return to the office, saying “significant progress” fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has made it safer to do so.
In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Biden said the federal workforce will serve as a model for more Americans to return to the office.
“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person,” Biden said.
Biden said his administration will launch a “Test to Treat” initiative that would allow people to get tested for COVID at a pharmacy, and if they’re positive, receive antiviral pills “on the spot at no cost.”
Ahead of his State of the Union address, Biden issued a letter Tuesday thanking the federal workforce for its “tireless work this past year” confronting the pandemic and leading economic recovery efforts.
A return to the office, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
Biden urged agencies to “build on the innovations and technologies that we put to work serving the American people throughout the pandemic, making our government more efficient, resilient, and effective.”
“Because of our progress combating the pandemic, we can safely increase in-person work, while continuing to protect your health and safety,” Biden said.
While a surge of COVID cases under the omicron variant complicated return-to-office plans scheduled for the start of this year, several large agencies, including the Justice and Agriculture Departments, have recently released plans that would send more employees into the office in the coming months.
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon, in a statement, thanked Biden for recognizing the commitment and dedication of the federal workforce.
“It does not go unnoticed when the president speaks directly to our nation’s public servants and commends them for their efforts, especially during the pandemic,” Reardon said.
Reardon said NTEU represents tens of thousands of federal employees with jobs that required them to report to their offices throughout the pandemic, while other members under maximum telework policies “continued working and serving the American people without interruption.”
“Agencies have already begun the process of re-opening federal workplaces for all employees and gradually returning teleworkers back into the office environment. NTEU is heavily involved in that process including working to permanently expand telework options for federal workers,” he said.
The task force said federal offices with “low” or “medium” community levels of COVID-19 don’t need to require masking, and that “medium” level locations should use their existing protocols for COVID screening. Locations the CDC deems at “high” community levels should enforce both masks and screening.
The latest guidance applies to everyone, and doesn’t draw any distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.
Reardon, speaking at NTEU’s annual legislative conference, said the union is also working with Congress to bring back emergency paid leave for federal employees who are still dealing with COVID-19.
“COVID is still causing upended schedules and family emergencies, and you should have the time and support that you need to handle and tackle those situations,” Reardon said.
As more agencies plan to bring federal employees back into the office, Reardon urged agencies to continue to support expanded telework.
“We’ve seen some on Capitol Hill try to claim that federal employees are not hard at work, because they are not in the office. That is flat-out wrong. It doesn’t take anywhere near a rocket scientist to figure out that it is time to expand telework programs, not to limit them, not to shut them down,” he said.
Biden’s comments about office reentry took place the same day many Democratic lawmakers praised the federal workforce for moving public-facing services online and serving the public virtually over the past two years.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), speaking at NTEU’s legislative conference, said the pandemic has made the work of federal employees especially difficult.
“Some of you have been on the front lines, while many of you have shifted to telework. You’ve successfully adapted the work of the federal government by administering entirely new programs, making existing programs virtual and implementing new health and safety measures in your day-to-day operations,” Clyburn said.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said federal employees in public-facing jobs have “faced extra challenges” during the pandemic, and vowed to continue to press for adequate pay and safe working conditions for the federal workforce.
“It is critical that our agencies give you the tools and policies that you need to stay safe and healthy in the workplace,” Demings said.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) said he would ensure federal workers have a “safe and respectful work environment, and the adequate pay and benefits that you deserve.”
“I know the last few years have posed unique challenges for each and every one of you. I just want to say thank you for all of your great work. Thank you for never giving up,” Cartwright said.
Chairman of the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told NTEU members he would push for increased funding for the Treasury Department and IRS, while ensuring a safe working environment for all federal employees.
“As we pull through this pandemic, I will continue to support the many measures the administration is proposing for a safe return to work for federal employees,” Quigley said.
Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, meanwhile, told NTEU members that the Biden administration is focused on removing hurdles that make it harder for unions to collectively bargain within federal workplaces.
OPM last October issued new guidance urging agencies to inform prospective employees, new hires and current federal workers about their collective bargaining rights and details on the labor unions at their organizations.
“Increasing worker organizing and empowerment is critical to growing the middle class, building an economy that puts workers first and strengthening our democracy,” Ahuja said.
American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, in a statement, said agencies under the Biden administration continue to negotiate with labor unions “over policies regarding workplace health and safety, expansion of telework, and the safe return to worksites as the risks of the pandemic subside.”
“AFGE looks forward to continuing to work with President Biden and his administration to strengthen the rights and protections of federal workers, ensure widespread implementation of the president’s executive orders and policy directions, and guarantee that all federal employees have the tools and support they need to do their jobs and deliver for the American public,” Kelley said.