The federal government is pushing to end telework — but why?

Government agencies rarely utilize the opportunity to learn without being force-fed. In the case of telework for federal employees, they are true to form.

According to White House chief of staff Jeff Zients in an Aug. 4 memo to Cabinet officials, “We are returning to in-person work because it is critical to the well-being of our teams and will enable us to deliver better results for the American people. These changes will allow us to harness the benefits of enhanced flexibilities that we experienced during the pandemic, while ensuring we have the in-person time we need to build a strong culture, trust, and interpersonal connections.”

The real question federal employees and their unions have for the White House is, “what problem are we trying to solve?”

The visual that opponents of teleworking often portray is that of an employee sitting around all day in pajamas, logging into Zoom meetings. That impression, while good for a viral meme, denigrates and disrespects the important work that federal employees across the country accomplish every day on behalf of the American taxpayer. Before, during and after the pandemic, these dedicated public servants performed admirably and to the highest standards.

For employees represented by the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) who work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) across the country, many have never worked in a brick-and-mortar building. A prime example are the aviation safety inspectors PASS represents in the Aviation Safety Directorate of the FAA who develop policy, educate the public, investigate incidents and accidents, certify pilots, flight attendants and aircraft mechanics, and oversee the air carriers, general aviation, and manufacturing industries under Title 14 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.

Much of the work performed by our inspector workforce does not require employees to be in a “water cooler” environment. Inspections of aircraft and maintenance programs are accomplished on site, not in an office, and inspectors often operate independently. When they are in an office, they electronically manage records, forms and communications. Some employees work virtually because of the nature of their jobs. In these cases, the claim that they would benefit from personal interaction is fallacious at best.

The effort to force employees into federal office buildings undercuts as well the direction of the Obama administration in 2014 to reduce the government’s environmental impact. One of the strategies to accomplish that was to utilize telework to the maximum extent possible. In fact, the FAA’s own policy on teleworking states the following:

“Telework promotes management effectiveness when used to target reductions in management costs and environmental impact, and transit costs, and it enhances work-life balance; i.e., telework allows employees to better manage their work and family obligations, retaining a more resilient workforce able to better meet FAA goals.” (Human Resource Policy Manual WLB 12.3 Telework, under Purpose).

Most arguments for returning employees to brick-and-mortar buildings fail to consider the actual contributions of individual employees based on the mission of the agencies for which they work. When a bargaining unit employee makes a request to telework, the FAA —which has the authority to grant or deny the request — must consider the reasonableness and workability of the request, and the effect of the request upon the efficiency of the service. The FAA must assess these criteria in a fair, objective and equitable manner and base them on sound business practices, not arbitrary limitations.

I spent 34 years working for the federal government after serving in the U.S. Air Force. Feds get blamed for the mismanagement of their agencies when in fact it is overarching decisions, like the one on telework, that hamper public servants as they strive to live up to their oath. As “smaller government” proponents spend more money on government office space to prop up local economies by cancelling an initiative that benefits the American taxpayer, they should rethink the dollars being saved and invest in the proper staffing and funding of aviation safety and air traffic control initiatives.

By embracing telework, the FAA elevates efficiency, improves work-life balance, attracts and retains talent, bolsters its resilience, and contributes to environmental sustainability. As the agency navigates the skies of the future, telework stands as a beacon, guiding it toward a horizon of greater flexibility, efficiency and success.

David Spero is a retired 34-year employee of the Federal Aviation Administration and serving his first term as national president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.

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