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Federal Government’s Return To Office Delayed By Union Disputes

When President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address on March 1, 2022, that the “vast majority” of federal workers would soon return to the office, workers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had been waiting months for a post-Covid office re-entry plan.

Three days after Biden’s address, the EEOC’s employees were provided with a plan. It had no remote work policy and ignored months of engagement with decision-makers, Rachel Shonfield, president of the union representing more than 1,500 EEOC employees, told Bisnow

“My phone lit up … folks were saying, ‘Why did we fill out these surveys, why did we go to these focus groups, because nobody listened!’” Shonfield said. “People were so completely demoralized.”

After the policy was unilaterally imposed in May, her union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 216, filed an unfair labor practice charge against the EEOC. The Federal Labor Relations Authority sided with the union in June, arguing that the EEOC hadn’t been negotiating in good faith.

A rally led by AFGE members in New Orleans in August 2022.

The two sides reached a temporary agreement with a more flexible telework policy in November, but Shonfield said the dispute speaks to a broader issue: that officials are trying to “check boxes” in their return-to-office push without taking the time to understand the needs of their employees. 

The EEOC case isn’t the only dispute between labor and federal agency heads over telework policies, and in a workforce that is more heavily unionized than the private sector, that could spell further trouble for the federal return-to-office push. 

The federal government has faced consistent calls from office owners and local officials, especially those in D.C., to come up with a re-entry plan for the more than 2 million federal workers across the country. 

But the unions representing federal workers have been clear as negotiations over re-entry plans continue that the old expectations about the federal workforce’s office presence will need to be replaced with a new reality: Telework will be a much bigger part of workers’ lives going forward.

“Federal employees have an obligation to deliver services for the American people,” said Jacqueline Simon, national policy director for AFGE. “They do not have an obligation to patronize businesses in downtown D.C.”

The pressure to return to the office has boiled into public view this year. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in her inaugural address in January that the federal government — which employs roughly a quarter of the District’s workforce and leases or owns a third of its office stock — had a responsibility to come up with a return-to-office plan.

“We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses and by any user willing to revitalize it,” Bowser said in remarks on Jan. 2.

The EEOC didn't respond to a request for comment. While its brush with the Federal Labor Relations Authority was unusual, it is far from the only federal agency to renegotiate its telework arrangements with union intervention.

In December, the National Archives and Records Administration reached an agreement with its union allowing up to five telework days per week for all employees, which are to be granted “based on legitimate business needs,” according to the AFGE.

The month prior, the National Science Foundation’s new four-year collective bargaining agreement allowed employees to telework up to eight days per pay period and expanded the number of teleworkers allowed from eight to 150. 

2415 Eisenhower Ave. in Alexandria, Virginia, where the National Science Foundation has been headquartered since 2017.

Negotiations are ongoing at other federal agencies, including at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where AFGE Local 421 found that roughly half of the 1,000 workers in its bargaining unit would consider a job elsewhere.

Despite Biden’s pronouncement about the return of federal workers, re-entry plans have been delayed for more than a year. Experts attribute that not to challenges with real estate, but to issues with labor.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees federal guidance on telework policies, referred Bisnow to the agency’s 2022 telework report. In its introduction, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said embracing telework was a priority in order to ensure the federal government hired and retained top talent, arguing “there is no going back.”

“There has been a sea change in the American labor market,” Ahuja said. “Federal agencies must continue to embrace workplace flexibilities, such as telework, to remain competitive.”

The report found that between fiscal year 2020 and 2021, the percentage of federal employees teleworking increased from 45% to 47% of all workers. 

FD Stonewater Managing Director Norman Dong, who oversaw the federal government's office portfolio for the General Services Administration between 2014 and 2017, said that labor was a regular component of discussions about real estate needs during that time. 

He said that guidance issued by OMB in 2021 delegating the task of return-to-office plans to agency heads and other top officials has driven much of the internal discussions over re-entry since.

“Agencies are competing for talent in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Telework is something that factors into the mix," Dong said. “I come back to the written guidance. That is like gospel to people.”

But despite broad pronouncements that telework is here to stay, commercial office owners have been frustrated by re-entry plans that are piecemeal and lack a clear overall direction from the top, said Darian Leblanc, an executive vice chairman at Cushman & Wakefield.

“If the federal government is going to embrace broad-scale remote work across most federal agencies indefinitely, then announcing that publicly will be helpful, because then the private sector can begin to extrapolate what that could mean,” Leblanc said. “The deafening silence right now in terms of what it consists of means that people can’t plan.”

D.C. leaders say the effects of federal workers’ slow return to downtown buildings are clear: Retail vacancies remain high in the office-heavy downtown and East End, where workers once bought lunch, visited dry cleaners and shopped regularly. The Washington-area Metro system is also missing hundreds of thousands of riders.

The Metro went from 626,000 trips in 2019 to 224,000 trips in 2022, according to statistics available on WMATA's data portal.

But despite that strain, one area where union leaders and policy setters in the federal government agree is that the federal government’s footprint will shrink, a policy that Transwestern Managing Director Lucy Kitchin described at a Bisnow event last year as one of “reduction, reduction, reduction."

That’s likely to continue as the federal government competes with the private sector for labor. More than a quarter of federal workers are set to retire by 2027, forcing the feds to incorporate incentives like teleworking to promote recruitment and retention, according to an analysis by JLL shared with Bisnow.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office is preparing a Federal Building Utilization Study that will provide some answers on just how many workers are returning to the office when it is published in the coming months, Dong said.

But Shonfield said the cat is already out of the bag — EEOC employees have told her they’ve had an easier time doing much of their work handling workplace disputes remotely. The union is continuing to negotiate a more permanent telework policy, and she said she’s advocating for more flexibility going forward.

“There’s a comfort issue for individuals, particularly those who were subjected to harassment, that they’re not having to come sit in a conference room with the folks that they find to be intimidating,” Shonfield said. “We would like recognition at EEOC that this is a post-Covid world, that other agencies are expanding their pre-Covid telework policies and having remote policies.”

John Falcicchio, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he would like to see the Biden administration issue a clear, overarching policy on how many days it wants to see federal workers in the office.

“We think it's best that there is a centralized policy that comes from the White House,” Falcicchio said. “It should be a clear concise enterprisewide directive for how folks come back to the office.”

He also said the Bowser administration has been steadfast in its assertion that the District just needs some workers coming in for part of the week in order to make a difference in the health of downtown, not a unilateral return-to-office five days a week.

A majority of the District government’s 37,000 employees are working on a hybrid schedule, according to Falcicchio. He argued that if D.C. can mandate in-office time and still attract and retain talent, then the federal government should be able to do the same.

“We have the same aspects of trying to compete with the private sector and also compete with other employers who offer more liberal telework policies,” Falcicchio said. “We understand that perspective, but it's something we've been able to implement.”