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Lawmakers Want More Government Workers Back in the Office

Most government employees at the state and local level have returned to their respective offices at least part time, but some legislators and other officials want to make in-person work mandatory.

A person in a wheelchair handing computer equipment to a person standing in front of them.
In California, Evan Underwood returned his Department of General Services computer equipment after he quit because he could no longer work remotely full time.
Renée C. Byer/TNS
In Brief:
  • Only a small percentage of public-sector employees at the federal and state levels telework full time in 2024.

  • However, some public officials have been pushing to get all state and federal employees back in the office by the end of the year.

  • Public-sector unions criticize these attempts, while some note it would be harder to retain and recruit workers.

  • In Hawaii, 4,000 state employees still work remotely. That may sound like a lot, but it’s only about 3 percent of the state’s total public-sector workforce. Still, some lawmakers are critical of the practice. “If they don’t like work,” state Sen. Kurt Favella said, “tough luck.”

    More than four years after the start of the pandemic, the number of government workers who are still remote has dropped. Last year, 54 percent of federal workers worked remotely at least one day a week, while 42 percent did not telework at all, or only infrequently, according to a survey from the Office of Personnel Management.

    Teleworking employees have always made up a minority of the public-sector workforce. The fact that some politicians are singling out remote workers at this stage is mystifying, suggests Mika J. Cross, a government workplace expert with a focus on flexible work programs. “If you look at our historical workplace policies, flexibility in work location has been around for more than 70 years in some form or shape,” Cross points out. “It was just called different things.”

    Many states, cities and counties called their workers back to the office soon after the initial period of the pandemic threat. Lately, there’s a push to bring more workers back to the office. In Philadelphia, Mayor Cherelle Parker is requiring that all city workers make a full-time return to the office starting July 15, bringing around 4,700 workers back to the office. “Employee presence at the workplace allows for more personal and productive interactions,” Parker said at a news conference in May. “It facilitates communication. It promotes social connections as well as collaboration, innovation and inclusion.”

    By the end of 2023, most federal agencies required telework-eligible workers to maintain an in-office presence of at least four days per two-week pay period. A recent bill would require in-person work for the majority of federal employees. “Americans deserve to have a federal workforce that is both present and productive,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican.

    The share of workers who are remote all the time or regularly has been falling, but of course remains much higher than it was before the pandemic. Studies about whether remote work helps or harms productivity have been mixed, but it’s clear that many workers, particularly younger workers, like the flexibility of working from home. Last week, the union that represents workers with the federal Economic Development Administration sent a letter warning that further mandates for spending more time in the office would leader to greater turnover and understaffing.

    Further Prods This Year

    Employers have long since expressed concern that remote work would lead to plummeting productivity. Recent articles have portrayed some workers testing boundaries by taking “hush vacations,” where they work from a different location than the one where their contract allows. However, workers spending time in the sun at resorts or traveling the world while working their 9 to 5 are not the norm.

    There are plenty of workers who claim telework has increased their productivity, devoting time that might have gone to commuting or avoiding distractions from chatty coworkers. Nevertheless, many states have mandated employees’ return to the office as of 2023 or plan to do so by the end of this year.

    In California, state employees are due to return to offices in Sacramento at least two days a week starting this month. Again, this has been met with criticism from employees and union complaints. “State workers are saying no,” said Irene Green, vice president for bargaining of Service Employees International Union, in a comment to Sacramento’s CBS13. “They are willing and ready to fight this.”

    Cross cautions against what she calls “resenteeism." She says there are stages in which some employees will comply with new requirements such as returning to the office but silently lodge protests by becoming disengaged or behaving poorly before going on to find another job. “While some may crave in-person collaboration,” she says, “others may feel like, ‘You’re forcing me out of this work arrangement that was working better.'”

    All this comes at a time when the public sector continues to struggle with high levels of employee turnover and difficulties recruiting or retaining the next generation of workers. The ability to work remotely is often among the top reasons employees 35 and under give when asked why they’re looking for jobs in other agencies or the private sector.
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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