After a return-to-office, DOJ employee groups call for more flexibility

For DOJ employees, a recent return-to-office survey shows a clear difference in employee retention between those who can telework, and those who can’t.

Several months after initiating return-to-office plans, the Department of Justice is facing questions from its employees about the long-term impacts of a decrease to telework options.

In January this year, much of DOJ began working in person more often, with most employees now up to six in-office days per pay period — or about three days per week. But for DOJ’s assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSAs), a handful of offices are creating even stricter return-to-office policies.

Even though about 70% of AUSAs currently have two days per week of telework, that’s not the case for everyone, since telework policies are up to individual offices. DOJ’s Northern and Central District of California offices, for instance, recently decreased telework levels further for AUSAs.

And there’s a clear difference in employee satisfaction between those who have telework options available and those who don’t, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) found in a recent survey of about 500 AUSAs across the country.

“Most offices are following the recommendation of AUSAs to keep that two day a week option in place,” NAAUSA Vice President Adam Hanna said in an interview. “The places that have eliminated routine telework have seen a workforce revolt against it.”

Notably, 81% of NAAUSA survey respondents from the Northern California office — where there’s no longer routine telework available for AUSAs — said they are already looking for another job. By comparison, 42% of respondents at the Central District AUSA office, which offers one day of telework per week, said they’re looking for another job.

Image of DOJ return-to-office survey results
Results of a NAAUSA survey of 500 AUSAs about telework and returning to the office. (Source: NAAUSA)

“This is just a huge red flag,” Hanna said. “It ought to really get the attention of department leadership because of the recruitment and retention challenges that it forecasts.”

The responsibilities of AUSAs do require regularly working in the office, Hanna said, but he added that it shouldn’t result a full stop on telework opportunities when they’re possible. And at least some level of telework could go a long way for recruitment and retention at the department, Hanna said.

“We need folks who have gone to great law schools, who have worked hard, who have done clerkships. We need a diverse pool of talent,” Hanna said. “[Without telework] we’re going to have trouble keeping a high-performing, diverse workforce in U.S. attorneys offices, and that’s the worst possible thing that can happen in our community.”

A majority of NAAUSA survey respondents said they’re at least somewhat satisfied with their current telework policy. But at the same time, the results showed that about half of AUSAs would consider leaving their position if they saw a more restrictive telework policy.

Image of DOJ return-to-office survey results
Results of a NAAUSA survey of 500 AUSAs about telework and returning to the office. (Source: NAAUSA)

“There are going to be times that you have to do things in person — people understand that they’re professionals, and they’re expected to meet the requirements of their job.” Hanna said. “It was understood that we have demanding jobs requiring us to be in the office very regularly, but AUSAs across the country just came to really appreciate the flexibility and balance that some amount of routine telework brought to their lives.”

In light of the survey results, NAAUSA sent a letter to DOJ leadership last week, requesting a consistent, across-the-board telework policy for AUSAs. The employee organization is recommending two days per week as a baseline.

“We believe the evidence we have collected validates our recommendation that [DOJ] establish minimum baseline policies for workforce flexibility,” the April 22 letter, shared with Federal News Network, said. “We have never heard from an AUSA that they have any issue showing up in court or the office when necessary. But we have consistently heard AUSAs want to be treated like responsible professionals and allowed simple flexibilities, such as being permitted to alter scheduled telework days where it would not otherwise conflict with the needs of the office.”

A DOJ spokesperson told Federal News Network that the department has received the letter and is currently reviewing it.

Employee groups call for return-to-office review

More broadly, four other DOJ employee organizations are calling on agency leadership to try to minimize what they said are “harmful” return-to-office impacts on recruitment, retention, productivity, diversity, inclusion and office culture.

In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the DOJ Gender Equality Network (DOJ GEN), DOJ Association of Black Attorneys, DOJ Association of Hispanic Employees for Advancement and Development, and DOJ Muslim Americans in Public Service expressed concerns about the agency’s requirement of six in-person days per pay period.

“The DOJ requirement … is more burdensome than more than 20 other departments and agencies in the National Capital Region,” the employee coalition said in its April 29 letter, shared with Federal News Network.

Decreasing DOJ components’ ability to provide flexible work options could worsen staff attrition, the employee groups said, as well as the ability for agencies to recruit more diverse candidates from underserved communities. That also comes in contrast with the sweeping diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) goals from the Biden administration.

A DOJ spokesperson said the department is also currently reviewing the April 29 letter, and did not have a further response at the time of publication.

The employees groups also pointed to a 2023 report from DOJ’s inspector general office, which described potential return-to-office fallouts, saying DOJ will face the challenge of retaining workers as a result.

In fact, the OIG report said, even before the return-to-office announcement, 26% of DOJ respondents to the Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) disagreed that DOJ’s re-entry arrangements fairly accounted for employees’ diverse needs and situations.

“The department and its components face the challenge of fairly implementing the new in-person work policy’s exceptions and attempting to ensure that employees have a ‘meaningful’ in-person work experience,” the OIG report said. “Another challenge will be carefully monitoring the effect of the new in-person work policy on employee retention, productivity and morale.”

Since the in-person requirements are already in effect, the groups are now asking DOJ leadership to collect deeper employee data, then evaluate that data and consider making changes in the next several months.

Specifically, the employee groups are urging DOJ leadership to track recruitment and retention data by demographics; ask about the impact of in-person requirements during exit interviews; and survey employees on how they feel about the return-to-office requirements.

In the meantime, the groups also asked leadership to encourage DOJ components to offer other benefits, such as flexible work schedules.

“The department faces real risks in its ability to meet its mission if DOJ employees leave the department as a result of [increased in-person work]. Already, we know of multiple employees who have worked for the department for decades who have transferred to other agencies that offer greater flexibilities,” the letter said. “From our experience working in DOJ, we have observed that truly strengthening our team cultures is accomplished not simply by sitting in physical proximity to one another — but instead by focusing on the needs that each employee and team has.”

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