The decade's most triggering comedy
A Republican senator says that federal employees are still working from home as if the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, and is demanding an investigation into how the widespread failure to get workers back into the office is impacting taxpayers.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) calls into question government claims that remote workers can be just as productive as coming into the office, and points to various inspector general reports to prove her point. One investigation into a Department of Commerce employee found that a government worker was paid for 730 hours of work that was instead spent “playing golf, shooting pool, and going to happy hour.”
“I know what working from home actually means,” Ernst said. “It’s not fair to let the responsibilities of running an agency—and the country—fall on the shoulders of the hardworking public servants who are showing up while others are out golfing on the taxpayer’s dime.”
Ernst’s call comes more than a year after President Joe Biden pledged in his 2022 State of the Union address that “the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.” But by that fall, only 5% of government employees swiped into the office on a typical day. This month, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients reiterated the call, telling Cabinet members that it’s a “priority” that Biden expects them “aggressively execute” on in order to get “better results for the American people.”
There are some indications that federal employees who are working remotely might not be working at all.
A review of Department of Health and Human Services remote employees found that as many as 30% did not even log in to the agency’s email or computer systems on days they were “working” from home. Those findings were from 2020, the height of the coronavirus pandemic — when Americans presumably might have needed assistance from an agency with “Health” in its name.
In the private sector, companies have made the best of remote work by saving money on office costs. But federal agencies spend $5 billion a year to lease office buildings and $2 billion on upkeep, and the Government Accountability Office found that 75% or more of office space at the headquarters of 17 agencies is not being used.
The government also pays people different rates depending on whether their office is in a high-cost-of-living area or a low one — and has failed to update that pay structure to account for remote work. The government is still paying workers based on where their office is, even if that’s not where they live. That means bureaucrats could be drawing D.C. wages and living like kings in low cost of living areas, Ernst believes.
“These pay determinations should be re-evaluated, and possibly redefined, to save taxpayers money,” Ernst wrote.
Ernst sent a letter to every agency’s Inspector General asking them to use internet IP addresses and physical badge swipe-ins to determine what regions employees actually spend most of their time in, as well as how much additional pay they receive by being paid for the cost-of-living area of the headquarters building rather than where they live. She also asked how agencies’ various metrics, such as delivery of service and wait times, have corresponded to the increase in remote work.
She suggests that since employees are already moving to lower-cost-of-living places, federal agency headquarters could be there, too. Ernst introduced a bill called Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies for Meaningful Placement, or the SWAMP Act, that would locate agencies in parts of the country with expertise in their topics — for example, the Department of Agriculture would be located in a farming state like Iowa.
She also asked the agencies to determine whether various metrics, such as delivery of service and wait times, have corresponded to the increase in remote work.
In some instances, people are already pointing the finger at absent employees for government failures. At the Atlanta Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, which has one of the longest wait times for medical care in the nation, one manager responsible for scheduling posted a picture of himself “working” in a bubble bath. The post led to criticism from another employee, who said, “It’s almost as if this employee is making a mockery of all the veterans. I can sit here in my tub and relax, and you just have to wait.”
Ernst says one of the veterans served by the hospital felt the consequences.
“One such veteran temporarily lost his eyesight while waiting six months for an appointment with an eye doctor at the Atlanta VA,” Ernst wrote.