Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) is calling out the Biden administration for the “unacceptable and baffling” news that multiple federal agencies have no system in place to monitor whether their remote workers are actually clocking in to work.
As the Biden administration continues to push to expand remote work options for the growing number of federal workers, news that the government has no way of tracking whether their remote employees are actually working is concerning.
Four federal agencies told the Washington Free Beacon that they have no oversight of their remote employees — the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of the Interior and Department of Housing and Urban Development.
These four agencies went on to claim that their usual productivity measurements are sufficient to monitor employees who began working from home at the start of the COVID pandemic.
After contacting the Department of Labor, Burr says that he received a similar response when asking about the agency’s remote work policies. The senator argued that the department’s justification is “wholly inadequate and non-responsive.”
Burr sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, which is in charge of managing federal telework policies, accusing the Biden administration of not caring whether federal employees are actually working.
“Taken together, this evasiveness does not inspire confidence that the Biden administration even cares whether the federal workforce is, in fact, working while remote,” the North Carolina senator wrote.
Burr went on to push for transparency regarding telework policies — citing a Washington Free Beacon report from June which revealed that at least a quarter of remote employees at the Department of Health and Human Services had failed to log on to the agency’s software site, which gives them access to their email, video conference calls and other applications necessary to perform remote work.
The department did not respond to requests from the senator nor the Washington Free Beacon for a comment on how it plans to address the lack of activity from its remote employees.
Throughout 2022, the Biden administration has advocated for making its lenient pandemic telework policies permanent. The plan is also backed by House Democrats, who have been pushing legislation forward that would require agencies to notify Congress and the Office of Personnel Management if they are going to request that employees return to in-person work.
The Washington Free Beacon contacted all 15 federal agencies regarding their remote work accountability policies. According to the outlet, “The Department of Energy directed requests to the Office of Personnel Management. A spokesman for the State Department told the Free Beacon the department has a range of tools to assess workers who fall short of expectations or engage in misconduct regardless of whether those employees are in office or work remotely. The remaining nine agencies did not respond to requests for comment.”
Director of the Office of Personnel Management Kiran Ahuja claimed during a subcommittee hearing in July that she was not aware of the Washington Free Beacon’s report regarding remote work at the Department of Health and Human Services, but stated that she would look into the issue.
Ahuja went on to assert that expanded remote work options can “enhance productivity.” Her office has yet to respond to follow-up questions sent by Burr, nor did they respond to a request for comment from the Washington Free Beacon.
According to a survey from the Department of Labor, approximately 15% of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees reportedly worked from home in July.
With the increasing popularity of telework due to the COVID pandemic, software has been utilized to track employees’ online behavior via their emails, browser activity and use of other online work software.
A survey of 1,250 employers across the U.S. in 2021 discovered that 60% of respondents were using some form of this online monitoring software for their remote employees, while another 17% were considering using the software.
According to the leaked HHS memo, the agency was only using Microsoft accounts and virtual private network usage to track the online activity of its remote workers.
Burr went on to note that the Department of Education was the only agency that actually provided data in response to his request. The data showed that workers had averaged seven Microsoft Teams called per day.
Almost half of federal employees had been working remotely back in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Upon noticing poor office attendance and decreasing productivity, then-HHS chief of staff Brian Harrison commissioned a report on the online activity at the agency.
Later on, a whistleblower leaked the memo to the Functional Government Initiative, who shared the memo with the Washington Free Beacon.
Speaking with the outlet, Harrison argued that other agencies needed to measure their employees’ online activity, which he fears may reveal similar results.
“The American people deserve complete transparency on whether they have been paying thousands of federal employees billions of dollars not to work,” he said.
Peter McGinnis, the communications director for the Functional Government Initiative, stated that he hopes Congress will hold HHS accountable for its incompetence amid the COVID pandemic.
“Shockingly, the federal agency directly responsible for responding to the global pandemic appears to have rarely, if ever, been working at full strength,” McGinnis said.
The federal agency directly responsible for responding to the global pandemic appears to have rarely, if ever, been working at full strength https://t.co/SfaSowedi7
— Pete McGinnis (@PeteMcGinnis) August 27, 2022