Several federal agencies have no system in place to monitor whether remote workers are actually clocking in for the job—a fact one Republican senator said is “unacceptable and baffling” as the Biden administration pushes to expand telework options for its growing number of federal workers.
Four federal agencies told the Washington Free Beacon they have no specific oversight of remote employees: the Department of the Interior, Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agencies said their usual productivity measurements are adequate to track employees who shifted to remote work at the start of the pandemic. Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) received a similar response from the Department of Labor when he asked about the agency’s telework policies—and said this justification is “wholly inadequate and non-responsive.”
“Taken together, this evasiveness does not inspire confidence that the Biden administration even cares whether the federal workforce is, in fact, working while remote,” Burr wrote in an August letter to the Office of Personnel Management, which manages federal telework policies.
Burr justified his push for transparency on telework policies by citing a Free Beacon report in June that found at least a quarter of remote employees at the Department of Health and Human Services failed to log on to their agency’s software suite, which includes their email, video conference calls, and other applications needed to perform remote work. HHS did not respond to letters from Burr nor a Free Beacon request for comment on how it plans to address the lack of activity from remote workers.
The Biden administration this year has pushed to make lenient pandemic telework policies permanent as agencies prepared to return to the office. The White House plan is backed by House Democrats, who in June advanced a bill that would require agencies to notify Congress and the Office of Personnel Management if they want employees to return to the office.
The Free Beacon reached out to all 15 federal agencies about their telework accountability policies. 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.
Kiran Ahuja, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a July subcommittee hearing that she was unaware of the Free Beacon report on HHS remote work but said she would look into the matter. She added that expanded telework can “enhance productivity.” Her office has yet to respond to follow-up questions Burr sent in August and did not respond to a request for comment from the Free Beacon.
As remote work grew more popular since the start of the COVID pandemic, companies deployed technology to track employees’ online behavior through their emails, browser activity, and use of other online work software. A survey of 1,250 employers in the United States last year found that 60 percent of respondents use some version of this online monitoring software for remote workers—and another 17 percent were considering adopting one. Roughly 15 percent of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees worked remotely last month, according to a Labor Department survey.
The leaked HHS memo tracked the online activity of remote employees through their Microsoft accounts and virtual private network. Burr said the Department of Education is the only agency that when requested provided these data, which showed that employees averaged seven Microsoft Teams calls per day. But the other five agencies that responded to the Free Beacon and Burr said the data are unnecessary to track productivity.
Nearly half of federal employees worked remotely in 2020 when then-HHS chief of staff Brian Harrison commissioned a report on online activity at his agency after he noticed poor office attendance and overall productivity. A whistleblower later leaked the memo to the Functional Government Initiative, which shared the report with the Free Beacon. Harrison said other agencies need to measure this online activity, which he fears may show similar results.
“The American people deserve complete transparency on whether they have been paying thousands of federal employees billions of dollars not to work,” Harrison told the Free Beacon.
The Internal Revenue Service, which is set to more than double its workforce through President Joe Biden’s climate and tax bill, did not respond to requests for comment on how it monitors remote employees.
Peter McGinnis, the communications director for the Functional Government Initiative, said he hopes to see Congress hold HHS accountable for its incompetence amid the 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 told the Free Beacon.