A House Democrat during a hearing on government IT reform Wednesday demanded that officials with the Agriculture Department explain recent restrictions on the ability of agency employees to work remotely, and suggested he would introduce a bill on telework “metrics” to reverse the decision, if necessary.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., addressed executives at the agency during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Congress’ latest scorecard to measure implementation of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, asking how they squared Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to cut telework from effectively full time to one day per week with the agency being touted as an innovator in IT modernization.
“When I went to the White House a few weeks ago with [Texas Republican Rep. Will] Hurd to meet with [Jared] Kushner and [Chris] Liddell to talk about the innovation agenda, your agency was the one they decided will be the pilot project, in part because Secretary Perdue offered it up,” Connolly said. “That’s fine, but Secretary Perdue reportedly cut back on telework at USDA because when he was looking for someone while making the rounds, that person happened to be working remotely that day, and he reacted negatively to that . . . That seems to be a step backward from our point of view: telework is a very important, key element in the deployment of the IT issues we’re talking about.”
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Donald Bice, deputy assistant secretary of Agriculture for administration, said he was “not aware of that particular incident,” and highlighted a number of exceptions to the new telework rules.
“Right now, people can telework up to one day per week, but there is also the ability that if someone needs a reasonable accommodation, that does not change and they can telework more than that,” Bice said. “And if there are space limitations—several agencies have assumed their office space based on the ability to telework—that did not change, and so you can still, as an agency head, can allow telework beyond the one day per week.”
Although the department’s new telework rule allows for exceptions, some employees at the agency headquarters’ South Building in Washington reported earlier this month that managers were hesitant to allow for additional telework while there was ongoing renovation and lead abatement in the vicinity of employees’ work space.
Connolly reiterated that he opposed the changes to restrict telework, and suggested that if the agency does not restore a more flexible telework program, he would consider legislative action to reverse Perdue’s decision. Last month, Connolly told Government Executive that he was preparing legislation to protect telework programs across government for introduction in the coming weeks.
“We think telework is very important, and we don’t want to see any backsliding,” the congressman said Wednesday. “We saw a lot of progress [in recent years] at USDA, particularly, and we don’t want to lose that. The fact that maybe there was a negative experience by the secretary ought not be a reason for reversing or changing substantially the telework policy. What we hope we won’t have to get into, well, is setting legislative metrics for you. We hope the cooperative spirit will continue.”