Wicker, Heinrich, Grassley, Kelly Introduce RETURN Act to Get Federal Workers Back to the Office

Bipartisan Proposal Would Require Federal Agencies to Ensure Essential Services Do Not Suffer from Remote Work

February 17, 2022

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., introduced The Return Employees To Understaffed Worksites to Reopen Now (RETURN) Act, legislation that would direct federal agencies to submit a comprehensive plan to resume in-person operations and address constituents’ concerns about federal government services.

“Businesses have now reopened, children and teachers have returned to in-person learning, and health care and public safety workers continue to show up for work. Yet I continue to hear from constituents about a lack of responsiveness from federal agencies,” Wicker said. “It is now far past time to bring back our federal workers and deliver the service that the American people have been promised and expect of their government.”

“Federal agencies provide critical services that can serve as a lifeline for many New Mexicans, especially our seniors and veterans. Almost every industry has had to make changes because of the pandemic to ensure their services remain intact – a federal agency is no exception,” said Heinrich. “Providing services online and creating flexibility for remote work are important to modernizing our government, but cannot take the place of providing essential services in person. That’s especially true for so many New Mexicans who lack access to broadband. I’m proud to introduce the bipartisan RETURN Act that requires concrete plans for return to in-person operation at federal agencies, and guarantees New Mexicans can get the support they need."

“Iowans, who show up for work each day, have contacted my office about how they can’t get federal agency staff to return phone calls or complete casework because bureaucrats aren’t in the office. This is totally unacceptable. My casework team has been pushing to get Iowans the assistance they deserve, and it’s high time the rest of the government get back to the office and get back to work,” Grassley said.

“At this point, Arizonans should expect that when they go to the Social Security or passport offices, they will get the services they need. With effective vaccines available to most age groups and Arizonans back at work and in the classroom, it is past time for federal agencies to safely reopen and deliver the critical services Arizona taxpayers deserve and pay for,” said Kelly.

On June 10, 2021, GSA, OMB, and OPM issued a memo regarding the return of federal employees and contractors to physical workplaces. The deadline to submit plans was July 19, 2021. However, given the spread of new coronavirus variants, many agencies have had to produce new plans, which are currently still unavailable to the general public and to Congress despite ongoing requests.

The extended absence of some federal workers from their workstations has exacerbated ongoing concerns about the federal government’s general responsiveness and accessibility. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs case backlog rose sharply to 204,000 cases in October 2021 because of a pause of in-person Compensation and Pension examinations in 2020. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has warned that Americans should expect delays in the processing of their 2021 tax returns because the agency reportedly has 6 million unprocessed individual 2020 tax returns and 2.3 million unprocessed amended tax returns as of Jan. 1. Last year, the wait time for a new passport rose to 12 to 18 weeks. And the Social Security Administration has been widely criticized for a drop in services because offices are still closed to the public.

The senators’ legislation would codify and expand upon the Biden administration order for agencies to submit plans to return their workers to the office, while also recognizing the need to make plans for future disruptions to federal services.

Among other provisions, the legislation would:

  • Direct federal agencies to submit to Congress and publish on their website a plan for the agency to resume in-person operations no later than 30 days after enactment of the legislation;
  • Enable employees who can successfully achieve their duties outside their workstation to work remotely if agency policy permits;
  • Require federal agencies to devise explicit guidelines for employees who handle  sensitive or private information to ensure essential services can be provided;
  • Require agencies to implement performance metrics to identify employees failing to fulfill duties;
  • Require federal agencies to establish a contingency plan for an increase in COVID-19 transmission that would require employees to work remotely;
  • Require agencies to submit plans to prepare for an event in which remote work would become necessary; and
  • Require agencies to report the utilization of physical work spaces and recommend the termination of leases for underused spaces to the Administrator of General Services no later than 60 days after enactment.

Click here to read the full text of the legislation.