Commerce, HUD detail office reentry plans as lawmakers urge faster return to in-person work

The departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development, at the Biden administration's urging, are planning to bring tens of thousands of federal employee...

The departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development, at the Biden administration’s urging, are planning to bring tens of thousands of federal employees back to the office starting April 25.

At least half a dozen other agencies have sent office reentry plans to their staff so far. Nearly all these agencies released their plans following President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.  

During his March 1 speech to Congress, Biden said the federal workforce should serve as a model for more Americans to return to the office, and directed the “vast majority” of federal employees to return to the office next month.

The office reentry plans mark an inflection point for many federal employees who have been working under maximum telework orders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agencies have spent billions on IT upgrades and federal workers have a higher familiarity with telework than they did two years ago,  forcing much of the government to envision workplaces where employees still have the flexibility to work out of the office.

Several agencies have already envisioned a “hybrid” environment for employees post-office reentry, and some have already outlined telework and remote work expectations once they lift maximum telework orders that have been in place since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, more agencies are expected to release their office reentry plans in the coming weeks, as the Office of Management and Budget expects the vast majority of federal employees will return to the office by the end of April.

But those office reentry plans, and the future of telework for the federal workforce, remain too murky for some House and Senate lawmakers, who are demanding an update from the administration on when the vast majority of federal employees will return to the office.

Commerce and HUD are only the latest in a series of agencies to announce their office reentry plans. The following agencies have released office reentry plans:

Commerce offers 2 telework days a week as ‘baseline’ for its employees

The Commerce Department expects all its employees to return to the office starting April 25.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Deputy Secretary Graves, in an all-staff email sent last Friday, said the agency plans to create a “hybrid workplace that recognizes both the desire for expanded use of telework and the value of in-person engagement.”

“We believe strongly in the value of in-person work and the irreplaceable opportunities it provides for collaboration, developing trust, and problem-solving. We also recognize that flexibility during this transition will be critical. Going forward, we will use our experience to continuously improve our hybrid workplace policy to ensure that we are doing our best to meet your needs while achieving our mission,” the email states.

The email, obtained by Federal News Network, tells staff that the agency has created a baseline telework guidance that will allow staff to telework up to two days per week.

“To allow for flexibility as we make this transition together, we are providing the bureaus with a process to expand telework options beyond this baseline guidance in furtherance of the department’s mission. Please consult your bureau for details,” the email states.

Commerce said it will provide employees with additional information about returning to the office over the next few weeks.

Raimondo and Graves cited Biden’s State of the Union address as the impetus for the agency’s return-to-the-office plans.

“None of us expected our posture of maximum telework to last for two years and now the time has arrived for us to usher in the future of work for the Department of Commerce. We will build on what we learned over these last two years, and we will create a hybrid workplace that recognizes both the desire for expanded use of telework and the value of in-person engagement,” they wrote.

Commerce said it will provide office reentry guidance to employees and managers, as well as answers to frequently asked questions, on its COVID-19 Information Hub.

Per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Commerce employees, contractors and visitors do not need to wear a face mask in an indoor setting, regardless of vaccination status, if their office is located in an area of low or medium risk for COVID-19.

In high-risk areas, all Commerce employees, contractors and visitors are required to wear a face mask in public indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

Commerce said it’s offering support services for employees concerned about office reentry through its Employees Assistance Program.

Employees who have occupied agency facilities or been on official travel must report to their supervisors as soon as possible if they have received a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, are presumed to be COVID positive or are exhibiting COVID-like symptoms.

Commerce directs employees who have had close contact with a COVID-positive individual to get tested five days after exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 10 days following exposure.

Commerce does not require employees who have received a COVID-19 booster to quarantine in the event of close contact. Unvaccinated employees must quarantine for five days from the date of their last known exposure.

Employees must also quarantine for five days if it’s been more than six months out from their last mRNA vaccine, or two months after their Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The Commerce Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

HUD outlines phased reentry of employees

The Housing and Urban Development Department, meanwhile, is planning a phased office reentry for its employees starting on April 25.

HUD, in an email sent to all employees on March 24, provided 30-day that the agency would lift its maximum telework policy that’s been in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

HUD specifies that it will lift maximum telework on April 25, and that for the first two pay periods, employees will report to their official duty station at least twice each two-week pay period, under their existing telework agreements.

HUD Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman, in the email obtained by Federal News Network, said the agency will complete the first phase of its office reentry plans the week of May 23.

Todman said HUD will provide additional information in the coming weeks about what employees should expect for the second phase of office reentry plans.

“We will continue working with our union partners towards finalizing negotiations on the permanent, expanded flexibilities, which we expect to be in line with those offered by both private industry and other government agencies,” Todman said.

Todman said bargaining unit and non-bargaining unit employees will receive additional information from the agency’s Chief Human Capital Officer in the coming days. HUD will provide additional information to all supervisors and managers separately.

Todman said HUD has continued to work with its unions toward finalizing negotiations on expanded workplace flexibilities.

HUD’s email to staff states employees will soon hear directly from HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, “who will be sharing her thoughts about the importance of your work and HUD’s ambitious mission.”

Todman said HUD’s senior leaders have already moved into a more routine “hybrid work arrangement,” and that supervisors and managers have resumed in-person meetings.

“We have made some initial investments in our physical work space to accommodate work arrangements, and we are providing training to help supervisors prepare for the future,” Todman wrote in her email to staff.

HUD did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its office reentry plans.

Federal workforce data in the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request shows Commerce this year has an estimated workforce that’s the equivalent of 42,100 employees (FTEs)

The administration estimates HUD this year has about 8,100 FTEs.

An OMB spokesperson told Federal News Network that more than 4 million federal employees have been hard at work providing critical services and combating COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and that “thanks to their efforts, we have the tools in place to allow us to safely increase the work we do in person together.”

“Across the federal government, by the end of April, the vast majority of federal workers will be at their workplaces. As federal employees come back together in their workplaces, federal agencies will build on the innovations and technology that they put to work over the last two years to make the federal government even more efficient, resilient, and effective,” the spokesperson said.

GOP lawmakers say office reentry for feds ‘long overdue’

While several agencies have issued office reentry place this month, two top Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee say they’re frustrated that a critical mass of federal employees hasn’t already returned to the office.

Committee Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) Government Operations Subcommittee Ranking Member Jody Hice (R-Ga.) are asking the heads of the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration for an update on office reentry plans.

Comer and Hice, in a letter sent Wednesday, are asking OPM for the date it expects “the vast majority of federal workers to work in person,” as well as all documents and communications related to agency office reentry plans.

The lawmakers are asking GSA for a list of all its federal real property holdings “with office space being used at less than full capacity,” as well as the monthly costs associated with owning or leasing these properties.

“It is long overdue for the federal workforce to return to work at their duty stations. We have repeatedly urged the administration to bring federal employees back as soon as possible. Every day Americans wait for that return is another day they suffer underperforming, inefficient services from federal workers not at their offices. It is also another day taxpayer funds are wasted on unoccupied federal office space,” Comer and Hice wrote.

The lawmakers also expressed concern with OPM’s guidance on transitioning federal employees to a hybrid work environment.

OPM  issued new telework and remote work guidance for the federal workforce last November, which encourages agencies to integrate telework, remote work and alternative work schedules. OPM on its website also provides guidance to agencies that are transitioning to a hybrid work environment. 

“None of that sounds like what President Biden described. Are the vast majority of federal workers returning to their offices or are they not? If not, does the federal government need to maintain all the real property in its portfolio?” Comer and Hice wrote.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), meanwhile, is pressing SSA for an update on when it will open its field offices to the public for in-person service.

SSA told Collins that it would bring its employees back to the office on March 30, and would resume in-person services to the public in early April. Collins, however, said the agency has yet to specify an exact date when field offices will fully reopen for in-person services,  that that “this lack of clarity to the millions of Americans who rely on Social Security creates many problems.”

“The resulting disruptions to millions of Social Security beneficiaries are especially difficult for individuals and seniors in rural areas who do not have reliable telephone or Internet access and experience mail backlogs and delays in receiving benefit payments,” Collins wrote.

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