At the beginning of the pandemic, virtually all federal agencies moved to fulltime telework, attempting to limit the spread of COVID-19. Even at the start, there were concerns about whether the proper internal controls existed to monitor this shift. As pandemic restrictions wane and most private sector jobs move back into the office, the federal government remains working from home.
However, little data still exists on the effects of telework expansion. In June 2022, FGI obtained an internal HHS report showing that according to VPN login data, 25% of HHS employees were not logging in for work on any given day. This report triggered investigations, led by Sen. Burr of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and Rep. Jody Hice of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, into how agencies monitor employees working remotely. A media inquiry revealed that many agencies were not tracking whether remote employees were logging in.
The Biden administration has doubled down on expanded telework. In November 2021, OPM released a guidance on telework policies, stating that the federal government will be transitioning to a “new work environment” and that expanded telework is here to stay. There are a multitude of questions arising from the new telework policy, especially in light of delayed IRS returns, reports of missed messages during the baby formula crisis, and other missteps possibly related to productivity factors.
To provide some insight on the impact of telework policies, FGI studied the use of leave for 24 agencies before and since the beginning of the pandemic and the corresponding implementation of increased telework. Declining leave use may be a sign of abuse if employees are taking time away from work without using leave.
- The analysis of leave data from 24 agencies revealed the enactment of expanded telework coincided with a steep decline in the use of both annual leave and sick leave.
- Annual Leave decline: >15%; Sick Leave decline: 30% (2020 compared to 2018). The decline in sick leave use continued through 2021: Sick Leave was down more than 15% from 2018.
- Every agency analyzed experienced a decline in sick leave use in 2021 compared to 2018, with use at several agencies down by more than 50%.
- Employees taking time off without using leave could result in tremendous costs to taxpayers. The drop in annual leave used compared to 2018 equates to nearly $600 million in base pay collected, and the drop in sick leave equates to more than $845 million. The decline in both types of leave used since the onset of the pandemic is worth more than $1.4 billion.
FGI’s report is only a start with data available for only a small part of the federal workforce. The data sets for these agencies point to an area ripe for further study. Before the federal government engages in expanded telework in perpetuity, its impact should be investigated more fully by agency Inspectors General, Congress, and other oversight entities.
24 agencies compiled
Agriculture data as delivered
Agriculture data compiled
Ex-Im Bank data
National Foundation on Arts and Humanities data
OMB data as delivered
OMB data compiled
Social Security data
Treasury data as delivered
Treasury data compiled
USAID data as delivered
USAID data compiled