Amid return-to-office calls, AFGE touts ‘overwhelming’ support of telework from feds

As agencies map out their future of work policies, the American Federation of Government Employees is highlighting strong support of telework among many federal employees.

An AFGE-conducted survey in March, with more than 3,100 responses, found that 87.5% of federal employees said telework has improved productivity at their agencies by a great deal, or at least somewhat.

Factoring in those who said telework had no impact on productivity, 97% of respondents were either in favor of, or simply neutral to, telework. Just 1.3% of respondents identified telework and remote work policies as barriers to better federal services, AFGE said in a press release Wednesday.

“What was surprising to me was just how overwhelmingly federal workers are saying that telework works,” AFGE Deputy Legislative Director Daniel Horowitz said in an interview with Federal News Network. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Telework has… Percent of AFGE survey respondents
Improved productivity a great deal 71.2%
Improved productivity somewhat 16.3%
Had no impact on productivity 9.5%
Decreased productivity somewhat 2.1%
Decreased productivity a great deal 1%

Chart compiled by Federal News Network using data from survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees.

AFGE’s survey results were split nearly evenly in thirds for employees who said telework at their agency expanded, shrank or had no change since the middle of 2021.

As for employees’ perception of the future of the government’s telework policy, the responses were “mixed,” Horowitz said.

Specifically, 45.7% of AFGE survey respondents said they do not expect any change to telework policies in the near future, while 35.6% said they expect their agency to decrease telework flexibilities, and 18.7% said they expect that their agencies will soon increase telework availability.

“If telework were curtailed, most felt that productivity would suffer and agencies would have a hard time recruiting and retaining employees,” Horowitz said.

But certainly not everyone agrees that federal telework is beneficial. House Republicans have overwhelmingly argued the opposite, saying that telework decreases productivity and continues to cause delays and backlogs in federal services, for example, at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The expansion of telework crippled the ability of departments and agencies to fulfill their missions and created massive backlogs,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the Oversight and Accountability Committee, said in an email to Federal News Network.

The AFGE survey, though, showed that understaffing, a lack of resources and poor management were the biggest causes of delays in agency services to the public.

Specifically, 66% of AFGE survey respondents whose agencies have backlogs attributed the backlogs to understaffing and lack of resources. And 27.3% of respondents said poor management and ineffective leadership were causing the issues. In contrast, 6% of respondents said telework was an issue related to backlogs.

In one example, AFGE has said limited telework at SSA during the pandemic exacerbated the agency’s challenges of limited resources and overworked staff. AFGE leaders have said SSA employees left for other jobs with better telework opportunities — leaving the remaining staff with growing piles of work.

In a move trying to reduce federal telework, Republicans passed the SHOW UP Act mostly along party lines. The bill, if enacted, would return large swaths of the federal workforce to in-office work. But with a Republican minority in the Senate, the legislation has little likelihood of becoming law.

Much of the debate over federal telework comes down to gathering data, an area where Republicans and Democrats have both said they want more information. Comer, for one, has said he’s not necessarily against telework — if there was clear evidence that it saves money and improves productivity and efficiency, he would support it.

But the reality of that sentiment from House Republicans is unlikely. Comer told Federal News Network that Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja “failed to produce any evidence showing that enhanced telework has increased federal employee productivity” during a March committee hearing.

Without more data from OPM, Comer said the SHOW UP Act “offers a much-needed solution to this problem of federal agencies and employees putting their own comfort before Americans’ needs.”

For Democrats, a bill from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) last Congress, the Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act, would have required agencies to more extensively collect and report data on teleworking employees, and to expand telework opportunities for the federal workforce where possible. The bill cleared the Oversight Committee last Congress, but was not taken up in the full House.

Connolly has not yet reintroduced the bill — or any federal telework-related legislation — this Congress, but he has re-emphasized his position saying that telework is beneficial for agency recruitment and retention.

“The pandemic taught us valuable lessons, including that telework is here to stay,” Connolly said in an email to Federal News Network. “The private sector has shown a willingness to learn that lesson, and the federal government must do the same.”

Some Oversight Committee Democrats said the AFGE survey only adds to the pile of data that “telework works.”

“This survey builds on the large body of evidence, including a similar report from the Department of Defense, that confirms telework has not hindered government productivity and has instead helped federal agencies recruit and retain top tier talent to better serve the American people,” an Oversight Committee minority staff member said in an email to Federal News Network.

Notably, data collection was the one provision of the SHOW UP Act that AFGE didn’t entirely rebuke.

“The part of the SHOW UP Act that we thought was fine was to collect more data from agencies about telework,” Horowitz said. “The part that was not so fine, from our standpoint, was setting the clock back on the policies themselves to pre-pandemic.”

Passing the SHOW UP Act would be a “serious mistake,” Horowitz said, adding that telework is helping federal employees at multiple levels.

“It’s improving work-life balance. It’s eliminating hours spent commuting. It’s improving the environment. And it’s keeping agencies productive,” he said.

The role of telework also largely depends on the agency. At VA, for example, many employees, including frontline clinical positions, doctors, nurses and dentists, don’t telework because their positions require in-person work.

But within VA, the Veterans Crisis Line, the office that helps veterans with mental health issues, now has a five-year remote work agreement in place. And VA Members Services has expanded remote work as well, AFGE said in a March 27 press release.

One of AFGE’s goals going forward is to solidify more telework and remote work expansion in collective bargaining agreements and upcoming negotiations. Horowitz said the SHOW UP Act would cause problems for previous agreements favoring remote work.

Ultimately, Horowitz said, it’s not telework causing the issues, but rather budget and staffing cuts, as well as federal pay lagging behind private sector pay.

“That is what is harming retention, recruitment, customer service. We need to get salaries where they need to be. We need to get staffing where it needs to be,” Horowitz said. “Then distractions like this telework issue are going to fade away because we’ll have enough people in agencies to deliver what the American people want.”

 

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