Drops in employee happiness corresponded with shifts in opinions on the agencies' telework policies.
Two federal departments that controversially made unilateral cuts to their telework programs were among the worst performers in this year’s survey of federal employees’ happiness and engagement, according to a Government Executive analysis.
In the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, released last week by the Office of Personnel Management, the Agriculture Department saw a 6-point drop on its score on the global satisfaction index, a measure of employees’ happiness with pay, their individual job and the organization as a whole, along with a 3 point drop in employee engagement. And the Education Department saw an 11-point decline in global satisfaction, coupled with a 4-point decline in engagement.
In March, the Agriculture Department announced that it was severely restricting its telework program, reducing the amount of time employees can work remotely from four days a week to one, or two per pay period. The policy change reportedly came after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was unable to find an employee in the office on a day that person was telecommuting.
That same month, the Education Department cut off negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees and unilaterally implemented a new contract that removed a number of protections and provisions, including telework. And in May, the department proposed a new telework policy that reduced the amount of time employees could work remotely from up to full time down to one day per week. That policy also says that employees who are on alternative work schedules—such as four 10-hour days per week—are ineligible to telecommute.
As part of OPM’s annual survey, the agency asked employees about how satisfied they are with a variety of programs aimed at improving work-life balance. And in the case of both the Agriculture and Education departments, their falling overall scores corresponded with a sharp decline in satisfaction with telework.
When asked how satisfied they were with telework in their agency, 81.4 percent of Agriculture Department employees said they were either satisfied or very satisfied in 2017. That statistic cratered this year, when only 38 percent of employees rated the program positively. Those who reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied also increased dramatically—36.7 percent had a negative view of the program this year, up from 7.2 percent in 2017.
The results were similar at Education. In 2017, 86.9 percent of workers reported being satisfied with telework programs at the department, but that figure dropped to 59.1 percent this year. And in 2018, 31.3 percent of respondents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the program, compared with only 6.6 percent the year before.
Officials at the Education Department did not provide a response on Tuesday. When asked by Government Executive for comment on the survey results, a spokesperson asked how to access the data. The Agriculture Department declined to comment on its viewpoint survey results, but defended the decision to reduce telework.
“USDA’s telework policy is designed to be responsible to the taxpayers and responsive to the customers who depend on our services,” a department spokesperson said. “It is also respectful of our fellow employees who come to work each day. This is just one part of Secretary Perdue’s OneUSDA philosophy, which promotes USDA as one family, working together as a single team to serve the American people.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., an advocate for telework at federal agencies and the sponsor of a bill to protect the practice, demanded that both departments restore their telework policies to pre-2018 levels.
“We warned that this would diminish employee satisfaction with telework and harm agency morale,” Connolly said in a statement. “The federal employee survey results demonstrate that is in fact the case. I call on the administration to act immediately to restore telework programs in the interest of recruiting and retaining a talented workforce capable of delivering the vital mission of the federal government.”