As federal workers are ordered back to their offices, pockets of resistance remain

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The In

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The In

Daniel


Early this year, House Republicans decided enough is enough.

“The federal workforce needs to get back to work,” said Kentucky Rep. James Comer just before a vote on his bill, the SHOW UP Act, which aimed to bring federal workers back into their offices.

“Federal agencies are falling short on their missions. The The “

Even with COVID once again on the rise, the push for more in-person work has taken on a more urgent tone, even in workplaces that have allowed employees to remain largely remote since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

That includes the federal government — the nation’s largest employer — where, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, building occupancy at 17 agencies (nearly 3 out of 4 of those examined) was at 25% or less as recently as March this year.

Aware of rising complaints about the government’s ability to provide taxpayers with services they rely on, the White House has stepped up the pressure.

“This is a priority of the President – and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October,” wrote White House chief of staff Jeff Zients in a memo to cabinet members last month.

In some corners of the federal government, the orders have led to clashes, as management and employees remain at odds over what the future should look like.

Resistance in large numbers

In Alexandria, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Jesus Soriano, a program director at the National Science Foundation, sees his agency’s return-to-office policy as an abandonment of valuable lessons learned in the pandemic.

“It is heartbreaking,” he says, given the accolades agency staff received for their performance throughout the pandemic.

As president of AFGE Local 3403, the union representing agency staff, Soriano has been leading the fight against a new telework policy announced this summer. Employee So
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In Near Together, the two groups represent more than 20% of NSF’s permanent employees.

The staff affected include program officers who play a critical role, deciding what research and education projects to fund, setting the direction for science and engineering in the U.S.The NSF awarded $8.6 billion in 2022, the vast majority to colleges and universities.
“They must be absolute experts in the very specific scientific disciplines that they manage,” say Soriano. They “

Remote work opened the door to a wider pool of workers

Before the pandemic, serving in this


kind of federal government role was a

nonstarter for many people whose spouses have careers elsewhere, or who have family members to care for. The cost of living in the Washington, D.C. area was also a deterrent.

“The area is becoming too expensive for public servants who in general make at least 20% less than their counterparts in the private sector,” says Soriano.

But in March 2020, like much of the country, the NSF transitioned to fully remote work, and suddenly doors opened. Two recent hires who spoke to NPR on condition they not be identified out of fear of retaliation said they were clear during interviews that they would never move to be close to headquarters. They While some were granted a temporary extension of remote work, others began commuting in every month, paying for their own transportation and lodging.

Soriano fears many facing such situations will quit or retire.

“The agency may be fulfilling those goals of building occupancy,” says Soriano. But Management 01 We “

Marrongelle also doesn’t view this fall’s return-to-office plan as backpedaling on any kind of promise, stated or implied. “We’ve always told our workforce — ‘Look, we’re not going back to the way things were pre-pandemic.’ And we haven’t,” she says. NSF staff told NPR said they disagree with that assertion, saying the same telework policies existed before the pandemic on a case-by-case basis.

Searching for a compromise

Following an outcry from employees, NSF management and the union have been working on a finding a compromise, one that would allow those hired in the pandemic to hold onto as much flexibility as possible.

“We’re not going to meet the needs of all of our staff, but

try to meet the needs of many of our staff who need who need some flexibilities — not forever, but in a in a shorter term,” says Marrongelle. She She There “