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House Passes Bill Requiring Federal Workers To Return To Their Offices

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill requiring federal government employees return to in-person work, in a vote led almost entirely by Republican officials.

If the bill passes the Senate and goes onto become law, federal agencies would have 30 days to reinstate the telework guidelines that were in place prior to the pandemic, CoStar reports. The implications could be significant for cities with a high number of federal employees, especially Washington, D.C.

The final count for the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act, or the SHOW Up Act, was 221-206. Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was the lone Republican who voted against the bill, while three Democrats — Pennsylvania’s Susan Wild, Washington’s Kim Schrier and California’s Josh Harder — voted in favor. Democrats largely opposed the bill, citing remote work’s benefits for hiring, retention and working conditions. Six representatives didn't vote.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management said that as many as 90% of federal workers teleworked in fiscal year 2020, adding to woes for office owners and hospitality and retail businesses that rely on federal workers in cities like D.C., which accounts for roughly one-third of all federal offices.

President Joe Biden has been facing pressure from local politicians like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and industry groups like the Real Estate Roundtable to implement a decisive policy forcing a return to in-person work or allowing agencies to relinquish properties and allow new uses for them. Biden called for the "vast majority" of federal workers to return to their offices in his State of the Union speech in 2022, but little movement has happened since then.

The bill, introduced by Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, would also require agencies to provide a study on how pandemic-era telework expansion affected their efficiency. The study would include costs linked to owning, leasing and maintaining underused office space, and that agencies wanting to retain more flexible remote work policies would have to report the positive effects of teleworking to the OPM.

If the bill passes, it could have serious implications for the real estate currently occupied by government agencies. The federal government owns thousands of buildings and pays an additional $5.7B in rent annually to private landlords for 180M SF of offices, and the General Services Administration, the federal government's real estate arm, has been pushing to reduce its leased footprint going back to the Obama administration.

While the government has cut 20M SF off its leased portfolio since 2011, it has been largely inactive since the pandemic's onset — only 525K SF of office leases have been cut in response to the pandemic, the Government Accountability Office found last year.

But industry insiders expect further change as a result of the existential transformation of office work. For example, the GSA is auctioning off an empty 110K SF office building it owns in Alexandria, Virginia, after several agencies declined to move operations there, Bisnow reported this week.

Forced returns haven't gone smoothly at other levels of government. After requiring municipal government workers to return to the office full time in September 2021, New York City Mayor Eric Adams is reportedly considering hybrid policies as his administration grapples with understaffed agencies.