Ahead of the pending changes, NTEU is emphasizing that even with the fluctuations, federal telework on the whole is not going anywhere.
Doreen Greenwald, NTEU’s newly elected national president, said while the union represents some 150,000 federal employees across 34 agencies, she still sees telework as a flexibility that traces back down to the individual level.
“There are considerations at play about what it looks like to have meaningful interactions in the office,” Greenwald told reporters at a press conference Monday, where she outlined her priorities for the union over the coming months. “Every agency has different goals and policies and things they’d like to accomplish.”
Despite a spike in telework during the pandemic, telework for federal employees has been around for decades. And federal unions have included telework as part of their collective bargaining agreements with agencies for years.
“There may be a change into the number of days but understand that many offices were teleworking prior to the pandemic and will continue teleworking after,” Greenwald said. “Our contracts have strong language about telework flexibilities.”
Moving forward, many federal unions have maintained that labor-management negotiations are crucial in instances where agencies may consider making changes. Greenwald said bargaining is underway at NTEU in cases where agencies do want to change their policies in contrast with current union contracts.
Telework operates differently at every agency, and even for every employee. To broach the differences, Greenwald said listening to frontline employees should be a key part of agencies’ decisions moving forward.
“Frontline employees know best how to get their job done, and where it’s best to do that,” Greenwald said. “Agencies benefit from learning exactly how frontline employees do their jobs, and how some of those proposals may not work.”
On Capitol Hill, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee has also put federal telework under its microscope for months. Committee leaders called on individual agencies in May to share more detailed data on the impacts of telework on productivity and service delivery.
More recently, the committee held a hearing with four agencies to take a closer look at their productivity measurements and policies for telework. And lawmakers plan to hold another similar hearing with more agencies in the coming weeks.
Federal telework has become somewhat of a scapegoat for many Republican members of Congress. Lawmakers said it worsened agency services during the pandemic. But many advocates of telework said the challenges are instead related to underfunding, understaffing and budget uncertainty.
“The push now should be on hiring for the federal government and making telework an option for employees when they hire,” Greenwald said. “That will allow the federal government to hire a broader base of employees who have the skills necessary to do the work.”
Despite some upcoming increases in telework, NTEU is looking to build on successes from the pandemic and expand telework where it makes sense.
“If you had a successful telework program before the pandemic, you should have a successful telework after the pandemic. And in fact, you may have gained some experience during the pandemic to show other positions that could utilize telework in different ways,” Greenwald said. “That’s how I embrace that [OMB] memo and that’s how we’re going to keep pushing as a union.”
NTEU will work with Congress against Schedule F
But changes in telework are far from the only priority for NTEU. For years, the union has also kept a close watch on attempts to make career federal employees at-will and easier to fire. Most notably, the Schedule F executive order from the Trump administration sought to reclassify about 50,000 career feds outside merit system principles.
Although the order is revoked, discourse around Schedule F has been growing for months. A couple Republican presidential candidates have vowed to remove career civil servants from their positions if elected. And Republicans in Congress introduced the Public Service Reform Act, a bill similarly aiming to place federal workers outside merit system principles.
To hedge against a possible return of the Trump-era Schedule F policy, the Biden administration issued a proposed rule to clarify and reinforce protections that currently exist for career feds. For instance, OPM’s proposal states that employees’ civil service protections cannot be removed unless the individual gives them up voluntarily.
NTEU was one of the driving forces behind getting that proposed rule out the door, Greenwald said. The union filed a petition in December 2022 to request that OPM address the established rule in the wake of growing discussions around Schedule F.
“This was something we saw coming with the executive order, and we immediately started to take on that issue,” Greenwald said.
But the efforts don’t end there. Beyond the proposed rule, Greenwald said the union is looking at other avenues as well to try to block Schedule F’s potential return. Particularly, NTEU is advocating for the passage of the Saving the Civil Service Act. The bill, introduced earlier this year, would block future presidential administrations from enacting a policy similar to Schedule F.
“Our goal is to make sure that we want to save the civil service, and we’re going to work with Congress to help make that happen,” Greenwald said.
Advocates of Schedule F said the policy was an attempt to give agencies more flexibility and hold career feds more accountable. But there are already systems in place, including discipline or removal from a job when necessary, Greenwald said. It’s a process that federal unions are a key part of.
Unions help ensure that “the discipline fits the crime or the allegation, and [employees] are equally treated under those guidelines,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald pointed to her own 35-year career at the IRS as an example of the importance of the career, non-political federal workforce — and as a key reason why she is still pushing to ensure these protections for current career feds.
“I served under administrations both Democratic and Republican. It did not matter to me who was in charge of my agency,” Greenwald said. “I was hired to do a set of skills based on my position description. That’s what federal employees do. You leave your politics at the door and you come and do the work you’re hired to do. Changing that would be dangerous.”