Only one of every three members of the federal employee workforce shows up at their office to perform their work duties despite the fact President Joe Biden declared the COVID-19 Pandemic ended more than a year ago, according to House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.).
“Three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of America has returned to in-person work.
“However, while the Capitol and Congressional office buildings have reopened to the public and are back to in-person work, the same cannot be said for large portions of the federal government,” Comer told a March 9 hearing of the panel focused on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
OPM manages the federal government’s 2.1 million members of the civil service workforce.
Director Kiran Ahuja was appointed in 2021 by Biden.
“The president himself said during his 2022 State of the Union address—yes, last year—’It’s time for America to get back to work. People working from home can feel safe again and begin to return to their offices.’
“Clearly, the president has at least stated that this is a priority for the administration, and it is a priority of this committee as well.
“And yet, reports have shown that only one in three federal employees has returned to the workplace since the start of the pandemic,” Comer continued.
A major result of the failure of most federal employees to return to work in their offices appears to be growing backlogs in processing benefit applications and significantly slower response to citizen inquiries by government departments and agencies, Comer said.
Negative Feedback Damaging
“In the private sector, negative feedback is damaging to a company’s brand and often leads to sweeping reforms to ensure that issues like these do not persist.
“When customer service plummets in the federal agencies, where can the American people go for redress? That’s why we are holding this hearing today,” Comer explained.
In her prepared testimony, Ahuja told the committee that the federal workforce has been allowing teleworking for more than a decade and has found that it improves productivity and morale.
She pointed to an evaluation by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that showed “from 2008 to 2019, the overall attrition rate for full-time remote workers was an average of 1.5-percent lower than that of non-teleworkers.
“The USPTO has also highlighted improved productivity, showing that patent examiners in the remote work program produced an average of 81.07 Patent Production Units (PPUs), compared to 76.28 PPUs produced by non-teleworking employees” in 2019.
Ahuja was handicapped, however, in responding to specific concerns about federal workers not returning to their offices by Comer and other members of the oversight panel.
Ranking Member Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose district is home to more federal workers than any other in the country, told the OPM director that “when the president is saying the emergency is over, I assure you my friends on the other side of the aisle, probably joined by a fair number on this side of the aisle, are going to expect that the workplace requirements changed with that change.”
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), for example, declared “the federal government is not at work, the federal government is not producing the results that we think would be necessary. Forget going to the passport office and what a disaster that is.
“Try doing business with the State Department overseas, try doing business with the IRS, try doing business with day-to-day people who may be at the Small Business Administration.”
Sessions further told Ahuja that “more people are teleworking than are allowed” by current OPM guidelines.
“Let me say first of all that COVID-19 no longer dictates our workplace arrangements. Throughout the pandemic, more than 50 percent of the workforce showed up every day and continues to do so,” Ahuja said.
Teleworking ‘Improves’ Productivity
She said an OPM survey also found that “more than 60 percent reported ‘significant in-person time.’
The OPM director further said, “we have seen in a number of cases that teleworking actually improved productivity, improved performance. Employment engagement scores are actually tied to and have much higher scores for teleworking.”
But when Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) asked Ahuja “is that 52 percent or what” on her 50+ percent estimate for how many federal workers are now working from their offices, Ahuja admitted, “I don’t know, I know it’s more than 50.”
Similarly, Ahuja hesitated when asked by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) what would be an acceptable amount of time for teleworking federal workers to spend “on their own stuff” while teleworking, she was unable to do so.
Perry then pointed out that at the Department of Defense (DOD) “527,000 hours, that’s the equivalent of 60 years, were spent in  working on their own stuff. Is that acceptable?” The figure for the Department of Veterans Affairs was 500,000 hours.
Ahuja responded, “Congressman, I am not familiar with those data points,” but she noted that much of the time Perry referred to was devoted to union representation activities governed by the collective bargaining agreements negotiated with federal agencies by federal employee unions.
The OPM director was also unable to say when asked by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Az.) how many sex-change operations were paid for last year by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), which her agency administers.
She also acknowledged that she was unaware of the ill health effects of some of the drugs used in such procedures.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) described Gosar’s question as “a shameful attack on trans kids and families.”
Another Arizona Republican, Rep. Andy Biggs, said he was told by one constituent who retired in 2021 from the federal workforce that he did not begin receiving retirement benefits for 13 months and another constituent told him the OPM telephone helpline is “a black box.”
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