First Look

GOP senators seek IG review to see if SBA office space remains underutilized

Republicans on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee are calling for a watchdog review of SBA's office space use.

Republicans on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee are calling for a watchdog review of the Small Business Administration’s office space use, over concerns its offices remain underutilized.

In a letter to SBA’s inspector general, committee ranking member Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) led committee members Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) in asking the watchdog office for a report on SBA’s current office space utilization.

“We request your office assess the SBA’s office space utilization as part of your role in providing independent, objective, and timely oversight of the SBA,” the senators wrote in their letter.

The senators ask that SBA OIG not just review SBA’s use of its headquarters space, “but also review the agency’s footprint and workforce in its field offices across the country.”

In the recent spending deal for the rest of fiscal 2024, lawmakers included language that requires agencies with an office space utilization rate of less than 60% to submit to Congress a description of their current efforts to reduce their physical footprint.

Agencies will also have to detail the total office space costs, the average utilization rate and the estimated cost of underutilized space.

SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman has repeatedly told lawmakers that employees are in the office at least five days a pay period, complying with the standards set governmentwide by White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients.

Last month, members of the House Small Business Committee told Guzman that the agency isn’t making full use of its office space, and demanded more details on recent efforts to increase in-office work.

Ernst, in a statement to Federal News Network  said that SBA employees “should be serving taxpayers, not channel surfing.”

“Since Guzman refuses to adequately respond to my repeated inquiries, I’m demanding that the SBA’s Office of Inspector General fully investigate and report back to my office. I am beyond fed up with inaction and excuses at the SBA,” Ernst said.

The Government Accountability Office found last summer that all agency headquarters buildings in the Washington, D.C. area had excess space, including 17 that had an average building utilization of just 25%.

GAO’s data snapshot reflects federal headquarters occupancy from January through March 2023.

Ernst last December placed SBA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the top of her “naughty list” of agencies with underutilized offices.

GAO data shows HUD and SBA both had a 7% average utilization rate in early 2023 — the lowest rate of all other major agencies. HUD and SBA officials told GAO their headquarters buildings were undergoing renovation during the data collection period, contributing to a decrease in attendance.

Ernst, at a March 20 committee hearing, asked Guzman about GAO’s finding about low office utilization rates at SBA, but Guzman said that data doesn’t reflect the agency’s current in-office expectations for its workforce.

“My data does not match that. That must be old data. Headquarters is currently at 50% in terms of occupancy,” Guzman told Ernst. “We have continued to follow the White House’s guidance and making sure that our staff is in the office and performing and meeting with small businesses around the country.”

Guzman added that five days in the office per pay period is a national baseline for SBA’s workforce, but agency employees in some cases are working in the office more often than that.

“It’s really based on mission. Obviously, our disaster team is in the office much more frequently. Our field offices go where they’re needed in communities, and so that’s the minimum. It really is mission-focused, and leaders are, of course, encouraged to bring people in whenever there’s collaboration or special focus, that they need folks in the office. We have really upped our standard, in terms of meeting the request of the White House, to ensure that everyone is coming back into the office on a regular basis,” Guzman said.

Guzman added that SBA is “invested in systems and processes to be able to maintain performance and leaders continue to have tools to track performance of their workers.”

Ernst told Guzman that “telework is fine, as long as it is meeting your goals for those employees, and that it is auditable.”

Ernst has repeatedly pressed SBA and other agencies for details of their return to office plans, because those agencies are “not responsive to our constituents.”

Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Ernst said she recently requested an inspector general review into delays and “unreturned phone calls” her constituents, including a nonprofit agency serving disabled and elderly individuals, experienced from the Social Security Administration.

“That seemed to do the trick. Almost immediately, the phone finally started ringing and the Social Security Administration is once again working is once again working with this agency to make sure my Iowans are being taken care of,” she said.

Ernst said an Agriculture Department employee recently reported to her office that “remote work and telework employees are often unreachable and do not respond to simple email questions for hours.”

“I have gone to USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. It resembles a ghost town,” Ernst said, relaying a quote from the USDA employee. “As a supervisor, I can tell you that full-time remote work and extensive telework are negatively affecting productivity, efficiency and cooperation.”

At a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearing in February, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Ernst that employees are required to be in the office a majority of the week, and that they remain productive while teleworking.

“For some, it’s three days. Some, it’s four days,” Vilsack said. “To suggest that they’re not working, I think, is an affront to the hard-working members of the USDA family. I can show you chapter and verse of all the work that’s getting done at USDA. I can tell you how many home loans, how many farm loans, how many [Natural Resources Conservation Service] contracts have been entered. And I can guarantee you, compared to other administrations, this team is working their tail off. OK. So please, don’t tell me the work is not getting done, because I can show you that it is.

Ernst in her Senate floor speech suggested relocating the USDA headquarters outside the D.C. metro area, “if USDA staff aren’t showing up for work in Washington.” USDA relocated two of its component agencies — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — to Kansas City, Missouri under the Trump administration.  USDA data shows between 40% and 60% of affected employees did relocate, rather than leave the agency.

“If USDA staff aren’t showing up for work in Washington, we should put them out to pasture by relocating the department to Iowa,” Ernst said. “With the spring planting season upon us, I know farmers and ranchers would appreciate some helping hands from USDA experts in the field — literally in the field — tilling the dirt and pulling the weeds.”

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