Senate Bill Would Permit Remote Work for All Eligible Federal Employees through the Pandemic

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It would also enable the Technology Modernization Fund to be used to facilitate telework.

As pressure mounts for some federal agency employees to return to their offices after months of adjusting to pandemic-prompted stay-home orders, three senators put forth bipartisan legislation to permit full-time telework for public-sector personnel throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The Pandemic Federal Telework Act, introduced Monday by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., seeks to set a default for maximum telework for agency employees until the pandemic ceases to persist (with some flexibility around work that can’t be completed remotely), enable use of the Technology Modernization Fund for tech-driven efforts to facilitate telework—and more.

In a statement Monday, Van Hollen called maximizing telework “a no brainer” that offers “the best way to keep workers safe so they can continue providing vital services to the American people during this difficult time.” 

The senator also confirmed intentions to push this provision forward in the government’s next relief package.

Specifically, the legislation would direct federal agencies to allow all employees who are eligible for telework to do so full-time until the government terminates the declared public health emergency spurred by COVID-19. Under the bill, agencies would also be required to assess whether certain personnel not permitted to telework can pivot to telework-eligible. When necessary, “compelling” reasons are presented, agency heads would be permitted to waive those requirements. 

Also included in the legislation is a requirement for the Office of Personnel Management Director and Health and Human Services Department Secretary to devise a plan—within one year of the bill’s enactment—“to maximize the use of telework by the federal workforce” in the event that future pandemics emerge. And on top of clarifying that TMF can be used for telework, the act also directs managers and supervisors to receive comprehensive, interactive training on telework within 180 days of assuming the role. Those participating in the training would learn about technology their agency harnesses for telework, proper security protections in place to safeguard the work, strategies to help engage personnel remotely and beyond. 

Upon introduction, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. 

The legislation also follows the Emergency Telework Act, introduced by Van Hollen, Lankford and Sinema in March as the novel coronavirus first presented a threat. The senators said the bill, which also directed agencies to maximize telework, came “in response to the lack of clear and direct guidance from the White House, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Office of Management and Budget regarding federal employee telework policies.” 

At the time, agencies had been pursuing their own, siloed efforts to enhance infrastructures and make adjustments to accommodate necessary but dramatic surges in telework. In April, the administration released guidance directing federal agencies to begin considerations around eventually bringing their workforce back into the office. And around June, some federal agencies and military installations began to reopen for employees to return to in-person work, though the U.S. continues to report thousands of new COVID-19 cases daily.

Lankford said in a statement that the new bill aims to help “ensure federal employees have clarity on their telework status during the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Following its introduction, executives from a range of organizations including the Partnership for Public Service, the American Federation of Government Employees and others declared support of the legislation.