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Watchdog urges probe into government telework, fears feds are abusing it to preserve leave

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Ex-Im Bank, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission, were among the federal agencies that saw the largest drops in both years for sick leave.

Published: December 28, 2022 5:23pm

Updated: December 29, 2022 11:25pm

A non-profit government watchdog is urging an investigation into federal telework practices after its research revealed "dramatic reductions in paid leave used by the federal workforce" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Before the federal government engages in expanded telework in perpetuity, its impact should be investigated more fully by agency Inspectors General, Congress, and other oversight entities," the Federal Government Initiative (FGI) asserted announcing its findings.

Reports emerged in May that federal agencies were not tracking whether their remote employees were logging into work computers. At the time, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., demanded explanations from officials, saying he received "troubling information suggesting that up to one-third of the [Health and Human Services] employees are not logging onto their government issued computer equipment on an average day."

Burr demanded explanations from Biden administration officials in a media cycle that ultimately prompted FGI to conduct its research. FGI compiled its report detailing the use of annual and sick leave among federal agencies using data acquired from 24 federal agencies through the Freedom of Information Act.

The report revealed "[t]here was a steep decline in the reported usage of annual leave in 2020 at the 24 agencies FGI analyzed, and the trends did not fully return to pre-pandemic levels in 2021," the report read. On the whole, annual leave usage dropped 16% in 2020 compared to 2018.

While 2021 saw a modest rebound in usage of annual leave on the whole, many federal agencies remained well below 2018 figures. The annual leave declines were largely echoed in data for usage of sick leave in the same period. Some agencies saw particularly significant drops, with the National Archives and Records Administration reporting a 60% drop in 2020 from 2018. That organization fell to third place in 2021, with the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities witnessing a 66% drop in 2021 from 2018, according to the group.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Ex-Im Bank, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission, were among the other federal agencies that saw the largest drops in both years for sick leave, FGI said.

FGI contended that work from home options could "provide an unintended financial incentive for some employees to hoard sick leave while still taking sick time unofficially under the cover of maximum telework."

"As public confidence in the efficacy of the government to meet even its most basic responsibilities is eroding, data showing that federal agencies maybe be either unable or unwilling to account for time off actually taken by their workers can only further diminish public confidence," the report concluded.

Georgia Republican Rep. Jody Hice expressed similar sentiments in a July 2022 hearing, voicing concerns that expanded work from home had the potential to shield poorly performing employees and consequently punish successful workers.

"As we look at retention and recruitment challenges, we should not forget talented workers do not want a career picking up the slack for poor performers," he said. "The Biden administration has also moved to expand alternative working arrangements – telework and remote work – permanently."

In June 2021, Hice asserted the Biden administration had failed to address mounting government inefficiencies but was nonetheless pushing forward with expanded telework plans. 

"It is clear that the unprecedented number of federal employees working remotely has significantly contributed to massive delays, inefficiencies, and declines in performance – all to the detriment of American taxpayers," he said at the time. "Incredibly, the White House is now considering expanding work-from-home options for federal employees even before we have a clear picture of how it will impact Americans."

He further launched an early call to investigate the effects of telework in the federal agencies.

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