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OPM is Removing its COVID-19 Operating Status Maximizing Telework 

OPM is getting rid of the COVID governmentwide operating status in May. People are now questioning whether or not this will end telework?

Just over three years after the world was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is now planning to remove the COVID-19 Governmentwide operating status announcement that has adorned its website since 2020. OPM made the announcement in a memo created by Kiran Ahuja, the agency’s director. 

The importance of this operating status is that it specified that the federal government should run with “Maximum Telework Flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees.” 

OPM will get rid of the announcement on May 15th, 2023. This happens to be just a few days after President Biden stated that he intends to terminate the COVID-19 national emergency. He wrote in a recent notice, “I anticipate terminating the national emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, 2023.” 

The president also declared the pandemic to be over months ago. In September 2022, he said during an interview, “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s – but the pandemic is over.” 

OPM is removing the COVID operating status now for multiple reasons. 

For instance, the OPM memo states, “…COVID-19 is not driving decisions regarding how Federal agencies work and serve the public as it was at the outset of the pandemic. For the last several years, Executive departments and agencies have taken steps for the effective, orderly, and safe increased return to the workplace, and many Federal employees have completed reentry.” 

It was in place for so long to provide safety for its employees. OPM said, “We have maintained the COVID-19 Governmentwide operating status until now to preserve maximum flexibility for agencies to learn from work environment innovations and to allow for agencies to adjust their reentry plans in the most appropriate way considering the needs of each agency.” 

OPM will remove the COVID-19 Governmentwide operating status announcement effective May 15, 2023. 

It is not likely that this change is going to equate to a substantial reduction in telework for federal employees. The implications are still up in the air however, until agencies finalize their telework plans going forward per the latest directive from the Biden administration. 

OPM’s announcement about removing the operating status notice states: 

Further, as required by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memorandum M-23- 15, agencies are developing updated Work Environment Plans (based on post-reentry plans) to improve organizational health and organizational performance. OMB Memorandum M-23-15 informed agencies of an expectation to increase meaningful in- person work while still using flexible operational policies. Agencies should continue to strategically use telework and remote work policies in support of their workforce plans moving forward while capitalizing on the benefits of meaningful in-person work. 

The OMB memo cited by OPM is one that directs federal agencies to “…substantially increase in-person work.” However, closer reading of the memo reveals that it is vague as to what that means and gives agencies leeway to keep using telework. An excerpt from OMB’s memo states: 

Agency workforces are generally expected to increase meaningful in-person work—that is in-person work that is purposeful, well-planned, and optimized for in-person collaboration – while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention. Planning should recognize that some operating units have improved performance while using workplace flexibilities, while also optimizing in-person work and strong, sustainable organization health and culture. 

Congressman James Comer (R-KY) couldn’t translate the OMB memo either. He called it as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” telework policy: 

House Republicans have pressured the Biden Administration to address the issue of prolonged pandemic-era telework and it is finally discussing it. However, OMB managed to issue a 19-page memo that shed virtually no light on when federal employees are returning to their offices – or under what conditions continued elevated levels of telework may be warranted. Based on today’s briefing with OMB, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the best way to characterize the Biden Administration’s telework policy. 

It is important to note that OPM typically supports telework for federal employees. The agency’s director (Ahuja) recently testified in front of Congress about the benefits of telework. Her testimony stated: 

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly accelerated the adoption of telework and remote work across the federal government, efforts to expand those workplace flexibilities were underway before the pandemic, mirroring trends in the private sector, largely in recognition of the benefits to both employees and employers. These benefits include increased productivity, higher employee engagement, lower employee attrition, expanded recruitment pools, and cost savings for both agencies and employees. 

In order to learn more about changes in the federal workforce and follow this bill, or to receive TSP fund recommendations from our trained and licensed team, become a member at Federal Benefits Service today.

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