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Should the Bureaucrats Get Back to Their Desks?

Never underestimate Washington’s ability to turn a controversial but apolitical issue into a partisan battle. The latest example is something called the Show Up Act, which stands for Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems.

The bill passed the House last week on a virtually party-line vote, with only one Republican against and only three Democrats for. It would require federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic telework levels, effectively ignoring the new normal of the hybrid workplace. It also doesn’t stand a chance in the Democratic Senate.

Nonetheless, the floor debate was heated. Republicans blamed bureaucratic backlogs on pandemic-era remote work policies. They accused Democrats of supporting dysfunctional government and alleged that President Joe Biden can’t submit his budget on time because too many staffers are working from home. Democrats, for their part, charged that Republicans don’t like federal workers and want to roll back the clock on work the in the same way that they want to roll it back on abortion and even slavery.

Hyperbole aside, the federal government is playing catch-up with the private sector. And Congress is making its job harder than it needs to be.

Numbers are hard to come by, but it’s clear that federal workers have not come back to the office in the same numbers as those in the private sector.(1)  Overall, about 47% of the capital region’s workers went into the office the last week of January, according to data from Kastle Systems, which tracks security-badge swipes.

It’s hit the economy of the capital hard — there are some 280,000 federal workers in the region, about 141,000 in Washington itself. The city’s tax revenue is down, stores are closed, and subway ridership is low. “It’s like a three-year hurricane in the city,” says Yesim Sayin, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Getting more federal workers to show up at least three days a week would help considerably. It’s why Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton are atypically aligned with House Republicans on this issue.

In his State of the Union address last year, President Joe Biden pledged that with Covid receding, “the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.” But policies vary among agencies, and the Office of Personnel Management has failed to update its guidelines about remote work.

That’s more than just a bureaucratic oversight. With the unemployment rate at its lowest level in more than half a century, workers have leverage. Federal workers may find more appealing opportunities, and more clear work-from-home policies, in the private sector.

According to Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist, roughly 59% of full-time US workers are fully on-site — they are front-line employees, mostly non-college graduates and lower paid. There are 28% in hybrid roles, who tend to be professionals and managers. Fully remote workers are about 13% of the workforce, and in more specialized roles.

It would make sense, Bloom says, for a lot of civil servants to work from home two or three days per week, mimicking what the private sector does.

But with Congress playing politics with workplace policies, that will be difficult. On the House floor last week, Representative Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, complained that “the vast majority of people” in his district — he cited some cheese-factory workers — had to go to work through the pandemic. So he didn’t want to hear “how horrible it is for federal workers to have to go in” to the office.

Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, agrees with Republicans that working from home isn’t “an entitlement.” But it’s the Office of Personnel Management, not Congress, that should take the lead, setting metrics for performance and productivity. It reports that in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, about 22% of all federal employees nationwide — and 56% of all eligible employees — worked from home some of the time.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are eligible for retirement in the next few years, he notes, and the government has to be able to compete with the private sector to recruit talent. “How often have we heard our Republican friends say we should run government like a business?” Connolly asks. Now they need to give it some flexibility to compete.

“I absolutely believe we all have to return to work and get to a standard of normalcy,” he told me from his home office, in between various Zoom meetings. “But it has to be different from what it was before the pandemic.”

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Government Workers Should Be Back in the Office: The Editors

• Working From Home Is Most Popular in Big Cities: Justin Fox

• Why I Don’t Want to Work From Home: Paul Davies

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(1) By one measure, only 5% of the federal workforce in the region was regularly in the office at the end of 2022. That number comes from the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, citing data from the General Services Administration. Another figure, from an October poll by the OPM, is that one in three federal workers were regularly coming into the office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was formerly a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

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