Senate lawmakers make another push for ‘accountability’ in federal telework, remote work

Lawmakers are once again proposing changes to telework and remote work for federal employees, this time by attempting to put the government’s definitions of the workplace arrangements into law.

If enacted, the Telework Reform Act would codify the definitions of telework and remote work. It would also require teleworking federal employees to report to the office at least twice per two-week pay period.

Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who introduced the bill last week, said it is an effort to promote management, accountability and transparency in federal telework.

If the bill is enacted, agencies would have to report to Congress on the potential value, expected cost savings and productivity outcomes of an increase in remote work and telework in the federal workforce. The Telework Reform Act would also require agencies to identify job classifications that would benefit from remote work.

The legislation particularly emphasizes the role of data in federal telework. Under the bill, agency chief human capital officers (CHCOs) would have to report their recommendations for telework and remote work best practices, their plans to update eligibility requirements, and any recommendations to overcome barriers to collecting reliable telework data. Agencies would also be required to offer training to staff members on telework and remote work reporting and eligibility requirements.

OPM already has reporting requirements for agencies on their telework policies and plans to collect more detailed information from agencies. But in past years, OPM’s annual telework report to Congress occasionally features incomplete information from a handful of agencies.

“A few agencies were unable to provide information due to the classified nature of their work or because accurate records were not available,” OPM said in its 2022 telework report.

What some Republicans say is a lack of consistency and detail in agencies’ telework data has been a sticking point in Congress. Earlier this year, Republicans on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee called on individual agencies to submit telework and productivity data after the members said they were dissatisfied with OPM’s report.

Aside from data reporting changes, the new Telework Reform Act would set annual renewal requirements for employees’ telework and remote work agreements with their agencies. Agencies would have to issue a twice-per-year survey to teleworking and remotely working employees to assess their performance.

Part of the new bill also intersects with efforts to improve federal recruitment of the spouses of both military members and federal law enforcement officers.

If the bill is enacted, agencies would be able to appoint military spouses, law enforcement officer spouses and veterans to remote-eligible federal jobs outside the competitive hiring process.

The legislation would expand on a current hiring tool that agencies have from the Office of Personnel Management. The military spouse hiring authority lets agencies forgo traditional hiring procedures and noncompetitively appoint some military spouses to certain positions. OPM recently extended the hiring authority until the end of 2028.

The new bill from Lankford and Sinema would put that focus particularly on remote job opportunities in government.

“This is a great recruiting tool for military and law enforcement spouses who wish to support their loved ones while also pursuing their own career,” Lankford said in a press statement. “By rethinking how the government uses remote work, we are encouraging federal agencies to hire in diverse communities across the country instead of requiring our workforce to be centralized in Washington, D.C.”

The new bill aligns with larger efforts from both Congress and the Biden administration to support military spouses, who often face unemployment challenges amid the highly mobile lifestyle that active-duty military families often have.

The introduction of the Telework Reform Act signals a somewhat different approach from lawmakers to federal telework and remote work than legislation that House and Senate Republicans introduced earlier this year.

The bicameral SHOW UP Act, which the House passed in January along party lines, would return federal employees to pre-pandemic work arrangements and largely scale back telework opportunities. Agencies would have the opportunity to once again expand telework, but only if they could certify that it would have a “substantial positive effect” on work performance.

Despite the Biden administration telling agencies to start ramping up return-to-office plans, some Republicans have pushed for a larger-scale return to office for federal employees. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced the Senate companion bill for the SHOW UP Act in May.

For the Telework Reform Act, there is no companion bill in the House. A staff member for the House Oversight and Accountability Committee declined to comment on any intentions from committee members to introduce a companion bill.

The Oversight committee’s subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce held a hearing last month to question several agencies on their telework and remote work policy changes. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, said he and some of his Republican colleagues are not necessarily against telework.

“I believe that telework can be helpful to agencies to help them carry out their mission,” Sessions said during the September hearing. “But it does not mean every single agency would necessarily have that same success.”

The subcommittee plans to hold another hearing in the coming weeks on agencies’ telework data and productivity outcomes.

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