Feb 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden to send more U.S. workers back to office

Illustration of open signs in the shape of the U.S. flag.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Biden administration plans to accelerate the return of the federal workforce this week, as the White House seeks to show the country that in-person work can be safe, people familiar with the plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: President Biden wants to lead by example in arguing that most Americans can safely return to the workplace. Biden's team is discussing the best way to send a clear back-to-work signal to America — perhaps in the State of the Union address on Tuesday, but probably in a separate COVID speech later in March.

  • "He will talk about the government leading by example — that COVID should no longer determine where people are working," an administration official told Axios.

The big picture: Nearly two years in, huge swaths of the federal workforce aren't yet back in the office. Agencies have been allowed to set their own policies, and are in various stages of return.

  • Vaccinations, boosters and declining hospitalizations and deaths are making a return to shared spaces less risky and more inevitable.
  • The CDC loosened masking guidelines Friday — another milestone expected to ease more federal workers' return.

How we got here: A spokesperson for the White House's Office of Management and Budget says federal workers' return to their offices began stepping up late last year. A majority of workers already are back in some capacity — but that number will "substantially increase ... very soon," the official said.

  • Planning for the return of in-person work has been ongoing for months, with the White House's Safer Federal Workforce Task Force coordinating with agencies on vaccine requirements and developing department-specific plans.
  • "New routines require flexibility and grace — for ourselves and each other," OMB is telling staff.
  • The federal civilian workforce numbers about 2.1 million, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Driving the news: One administration official tells Axios that over the next several weeks, the White House will begin a broad push for a return to normal — with messaging to show the public that federal employees are back at work.

  • Sources say many of the details may come after the State of the Union, in separate remarks around the two-year mark of the start of the pandemic.

Details: A State Department official says a "Mission Critical plus Onsite Dependent Functions" posture begins Monday for the D.C-area workforce. That's government-speak for more people can come to the office, but with the option of mixing of onsite and telework options depending on their mission.

  • A Treasury official says that while thousands of its employees have worked onsite throughout the pandemic, March 14 will mark the start of a nine-week transition to reentry for other employees, with 97% now vaccinated. "Reentry is a process, not an event," the official said. "Employee safety remains a priority. ... Treasury will continually monitor local and national conditions."

What they're saying: About half of the 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers who are members of the American Federation of Government Employees kept working onsite throughout COVID because they can’t do their jobs from home, AFGE's policy director Jacqueline Simon said.

  • That includes jobs at federal prisons, the Border Patrol, and veterans' and military hospitals and clinics.
  • The other half have been working fully virtually throughout the pandemic — and COVID safety is their top concern as they await return-to-work guidance — Simon said.

What's next: Simon said some agencies will try to limit as much teleworking as possible because they place a premium on in-person collaboration — but that overall the appetite for telework among AFGE's members is higher than ever before.

Axios' Alexi McCammond, Andrew Solender and Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.

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