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

Washington, D.C.
The federal government, the nation’s largest employer, is urging a return to office for federal employees this fall. A government report found that in the first three months of 2023, building occupancy at 17 federal agency was 25% or less. (Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)

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. They are not carrying out their duties. They are failing the American people.”

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.

Starting in October, employees must work from the NSF’s Alexandria headquarters four days per pay period, or roughly eight days per month.

That kind of schedule would not have been a challenge before the pandemic. But Soriano says since 2020, a liberal telework policy allowed the NSF to hire brilliant scientists who live all over the country — from California to Colorado to Florida — and to retain staff who moved out of the Washington, D.C., area for personal reasons.

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Jesus Soriano, program director with the National Science Foundation and president of AFGE Local 3403, has led the fight against the agency’s return-to-office policy that takes effect in October. (Andrea Hsu/NPR)

In an internal survey conducted by the union, 123 respondents characterized the new policy as unworkable, indicating they would look for a new job or retire as a result of it. Close to 200 said it would have a large impact, and that they would have trouble adjusting. 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 are not line workers who could be replaced on a dime.”

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. While no promises were made, their understanding was it wouldn’t be a problem.

They and others were surprised when last October, NSF employees were asked to return to the office two days per pay period. 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 we need to think higher and deeper and ask ourselves, are we protecting the scientific mission of NSF?”

Management cites a loss of mentorships, culture and trust

In the upper tiers of management at the NSF, the consensus is also that the agency’s mission is at risk.

NSF chief operating officer Karen Marrongelle says with staff scattered over the past several years, new ideas have been harder to generate, interpersonal problems have become harder to solve, and trust has eroded.

“We were still able to to fund grants in a comparable way to what we had done in previous years, but we’re an agency that prides itself on being much more than that,” she says.

“We shape science for the nation and for the globe. And we were not being as effective and efficient and having those types of conversations that were moving forward where we needed to go.”

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 [will] 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 says she is constantly evaluating the impact of her agency’s policies and making adjustments as needed.

“It has been a formidable challenge,” she says. “There’s no time to rest.”

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