Mar 3, 2022 - Business

D.C.'s economy awaits a boost as federal workers return

A neon green open sign in the shape of a dollar bill flashes.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden is calling federal workers back to the office, a move that would provide a much-needed boost to D.C.’s economy. 

Why it matters: Federal workers help fuel the District’s economy. Downtown businesses that rely on office workers have been hit especially hard during the pandemic.

  • Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has been vocal about the Biden administration returning the nearly 200,000 federal workers to offices in order to reboot downtown.
  • The record-high office vacancy rate resulted from the move to virtual work.

Driving the news: During his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, Biden said people working from home can feel safe to return to the office. The president aims to lead by example with the federal government in an effort to get the U.S. workforce as a whole back to the office.

“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” the president said. “We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”

What they’re saying: The District estimated in 2020 before the pandemic that the average office worker spent about $20 to $40 a day in the city, whether that’s at a pharmacy, on transportation, for food, or more, according to John Falcicchio, the deputy mayor overseeing economic development.

  • “For us, this is more than just getting people back in the office,” he told Axios. “It’s about the impact it has for other workers indirectly positively impacted,” such as those employed at local businesses.
  • “The runway is sort of between now and the spring,” Falcicchio said about when federal agencies individually will ramp up returns to offices. He added that the District has been in talks with the White House.

Zoom out: 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, according to AFGE policy director Jacqueline Simon, write Axios’ Hans Nichols, Glen Johnson, and Stef W. Kight.

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

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