Telework for Government Employees Becoming Viable After the Pandemic

November 19, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Federal agency executives and senators at a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday showed strong support for continuing telework among government employees even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

They said telework is bringing down their costs and improving the quality of job applicants without reducing productivity.

“We should at least have something good come out of this pandemic,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee that held the hearing.

Lankford said he is working with the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on regulatory affairs and federal management to develop new legislation that would broaden government use of telework.

Since the federal government started switching employees and contractors to telework in March, Lankford said some of them have told him, “We love the flexibility we have.”

He said permanent use of telework “would open up possibilities to hire anyone, anywhere in the country.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the ranking Democrat, said that since her employees switched to telework, “There’s been no interruption in our work.”

Although Democrats and Republicans liked the idea of more telework, they were concerned about increased security and privacy risks when government computers are used out of their normal offices. 

One of the risks they mentioned was ransomware, when hackers block access to a computer until they are paid money.

Witnesses from government agencies said improvements in computer technology have reduced hacking problems enough that telework could become a viable option. Current regulations that limit telework are designed partly to reduce the risks.

“There are some limitations, some statutory, some regulatory, but technology can overcome those challenges,” said Jim Borland, deputy chief information officer for the Social Security Administration.

The agency’s employees are making wider use of video teleconferencing, data exchanges and “persistent chat rooms” that allow them to stay in contact with each other, Borland said. Even wider use of technology is being considered, he said.

“Before the pandemic, we were not looking at it,” Borland said. “We are looking at it very, very closely now.” 

However, he acknowledged that some Social Security Administration services cannot be done by telework, particularly considering that about 10,000 more Baby Boomers seek retirement benefits daily.

“We don’t have a workaround for all of our in-person services,” Borland said. They include obtaining identity cards for Social Security benefits.

Michelle Rosenberg, acting director of strategic issues for the Government Accountability Office, said, “Telework requires a different way of managing staff.”

Instead of checking in on how employees are working, “You have to manage by results,” she said.

She predicted significant cost savings for the government by using employees who telework from all across the United States.

Workers in places with costs of living lower than Washington, D.C. could be paid at a lower rate without reducing the quality of life for them, she said. In addition, less office space would be needed in Washington.

Keith Washington, a U.S. Department of Transportation deputy assistant secretary, said his agency surveyed managers to review how telecommuting for thousands of workers affected their operations.

“Fifty-five percent of them felt that their work unit was more effective during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Washington said.

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