Ernst targets federal employees’ telework

By Kevin Bogardus | 09/07/2023 04:07 PM EDT

The Republican senator has asked agency watchdogs to catalog unused office space and delayed government services.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) speaks during a news conference after a Senate Republican Conference policy luncheon at the Capitol on Wednesday. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is delving into telework by federal employees as the Biden administration calls on agencies to return more staff to the office.

On Wednesday, Ernst expressed frustration about civil servants working from home, saying federal buildings have been left empty while public services are delayed.

The Iowa senator told reporters that she has asked agencies’ internal watchdogs to account for telework, which was expanded across the federal government during the Covid-19 pandemic.


“You federal employees that are out there, we’re coming after you,” Ernst said. “We’re coming after you. Let’s do the right thing.”

Later in a Senate floor speech, Ernst said government workers are “phoning it in” while offices, maintained by their agencies, sit vacant. She cited a local media report that a manager in a Veterans Affairs medical center in Atlanta attended a work meeting while teleworking from the bathtub.

“An overseer for scheduling veterans’ care appointments called into a meeting from a bubble bath and even posted a selfie of it on social media with the caption, ‘My office for the next hour,'” Ernst said.

‘It is fraud, folks’

Ernst said she has sent letters to 24 inspectors general, asking them to examine the impact of telework on government services; how much money could be saved by getting rid of unused office space; and changing salaries for staffers who have moved away from their place of work.

Locality pay for federal employees depends on how much nongovernmental workers are paid in the area they work in.

“How many of them moved away during Covid and are still getting paid for living in Washington, D.C.?” Ernst asked in her remarks to reporters. “It is fraud, folks. It’s fraud.”

When the pandemic first took hold in 2020, private and public sector workers were sent home to work there in order to avoid exposure to the virus. Since then, more federal employees have returned to the office, but expanded telework remains popular and in heavy use.

That has resulted in government office space, especially in Washington, sitting relatively empty. In a report released in July, 17 out of 24 agencies surveyed by the Government Accountability Office used less than 25 percent of their office space earlier this year.

Ernst and other Republican lawmakers have targeted telework this year. In the House, GOP members have passed legislation, H.R. 139, that would return the federal government to its pre-pandemic telework policies and have questioned agencies about how many of their employees are working from home.

In turn, the Biden administration has sought to increase in-person work at federal offices. Last month, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients told agencies in an email to “aggressively execute” plans to have more of their employees in the office more often starting this fall.

Yet any move to pull back telework could risk hampering morale and raising attrition among staff. An internal survey conducted by EPA found that nearly two-thirds of its employees who participated in the poll would consider leaving the agency if their telework was reduced.