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Biden’s ‘Aggressive’ Push To Bring Federal Workers Back Praised By D.C. Leaders

After the Biden administration’s most overt push yet to bring federal employees back to the office, local leaders are commending the effort, but office market experts are waiting to see what real impact it will have. 

President Joe Biden during his 2022 State of the Union address.

In an email to Cabinet members Friday, President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Jeff Zients, called for agencies to “aggressively execute” plans to bring employees back to the office more days a week beginning this fall, Axios reported

“Your agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work for your team,” the memo said, according to Axios.

The memo added that the issue is a “priority of the President.” 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose administration has been calling on the federal government to bring its employees back, said in an emailed statement to Bisnow Monday that it is good for the country to have a "vibrant, bustling downtown" in the nation's capital. 

“We agree with the White House that we can deliver more when we come together in person, and we applaud this latest action by President Biden," Bowser said in the statement. 

DowntownDC Business Improvement District President Gerren Price also expressed support in an email to Bisnow, saying it would boost the vibrancy and viability in the office-heavy downtown area. 

“If things begin to change with federal employees, who comprise almost one-third of all DowntownDC workers, downtown businesses will definitely see more customers, and our sidewalks and public spaces will feel more active and populated on a regular basis,” he said in the statement. 

At the moment, each agency is allowed to determine its own in-office and remote work directives, a policy that the latest memo appears to sustain, even as it ramps up the tenor of the administration’s encouragement to return to the office. 

But JLL Executive Managing Director Joe Brennan, a member of the firm's government real estate team, said it is unclear what the exact impact of the new push will be, given the power of federal employee unions and the fact that there is no apparent mandate yet. 

“Is it good? My gosh, it would be great,” Brennan told Bisnow in an interview Monday. “Is it going to happen? I need to see it happen. That’s really kind of the challenge.”

The administration’s latest instruction builds on April guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, which said it was an “expectation” that agencies continue to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at Federal offices, particularly at headquarters and equivalents,” while still maintaining some flexibility for recruitment and retention purposes.

In his March 2022 State of the Union address, Biden said "the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person," but that didn't come to fruition in the months following the speech. 

There are about 200,000 federal employees in the District, accounting for roughly a quarter of D.C.’s workforce, Politico reported in January, and the federal government occupies one-third of the office space in the city. A Government Accountability Office report last month found that for 17 of the 24 federal headquarters it surveyed, capacity was at 25% or less.

Over the past few years, public and private leaders have called on the federal government to ratchet up its return-to-office guidance. Bowser hammered the issue when she was sworn into office for her third term in January. 

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

At Bisnow’s State of the Market event in July, JLL Vice Chairman Elizabeth Cooper, who leases office buildings in the District, said the city should keep the pressure on the federal government to return to the office. 

“We have 82,700 government workers that are not spending money in the city, unless, of course, they live here,” she said. “We're losing $42M in revenue, folks, annually.”

On Capitol Hill, Republicans have tried to make legislative changes that would direct agencies to return to pre-pandemic teleworking policies.

The Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems, or SHOW UP, Act passed the Republican-led House in February. Sen. Marcia Blackburn, a Republican representing Tennessee, introduced the bill to the Senate in May, but it hasn’t progressed since. 

Federal employee unions have been at the front lines of pushing back against the mandates that have been put in place by individual agencies.

A rally led by American Federation of Government Employees members in New Orleans in August 2022.

On Thursday, the day before the memo was sent to Cabinet members, the National Federation of Federal Employees announced it negotiated three in-person days per week instead of four for Department of Defense employees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground who are part of NFFE-IAM Local 476.

After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission instituted a new policy with no remote work options in February, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 216 chapter representing 1,500 EEOC employees filed an unfair labor practice charge against the agency. The parties reached a temporary agreement in November with a more flexible work policy.  

In an email to Bisnow responding to Friday’s news, American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley encouraged agencies to work in partnership with unions to “balance competing interests and achieve a workable, long-term solution.” 

“Agencies should take advantage of the collective bargaining process and labor-management partnerships to design hybrid working arrangements that allow both for meaningful in-person as well as remote and telework options,” he said.