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Maryland Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen discusses concerns about bringing federal employees back to offices too soon and placing them at unnecessary risk

Francis Rose: A number of federal agencies have plans in place for the return to the office, and some already have employees back at their desks. Senators from Virginia and Maryland are calling it “grossly irresponsible” to bring federal employees back too soon. Maryland Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen was the co-author of a letter about that very issue.

Senator, welcome, thanks for coming on the program. What are the biggest concerns you’re hearing from your constituents about going back to the office?

Sen. Chris Van Hollen: Francis, it’s good to be with you. We should be leading by example. Instead what we are seeing from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, which are the sort of leading agencies within the government to set policy, is the wrong signal. Essentially, saying to all the individual agencies, start bringing your people back, but without any clear guidance. And what we know is that this virus has not gone away. So we are asking the federal government to continue to maximize telework. People are still doing their work, and there’s no reason to send them back into their offices prematurely unless absolutely necessary.

Francis: The Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management, Mike Rigas, was on the program a couple of weeks ago, Senator, and talked about the reason behind that, saying that the workforce, the mission and so on is different at every agency, and that’s the reason the administration is taking the approach that they are taking. What is the flaw in that strategy, Senator?

Sen. Van Hollen: Well, clearly they all have different missions, but in every case we should prioritize the safety of employees consistent with that mission, and there’s no reason that we should not be continuing to maximize telework for those employees who are telework eligible. These are individuals who are doing the work, but we don’t have to put them at risk by requiring to come to the office. We also have 40% of the metro riders every morning in this area are federal employees. So, again, you’re meeting the mission through the current telework approach. Why risk that, especially at a time when the governments in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia are continuing to maximize telework? They recognize that it is important to protect their employees while they continue to do the mission. There’s no indication that teleworking is undermining the mission.

Francis: What do you think this says about the future of telework across the government, Senator? Let’s say we got a vaccine tomorrow that everybody could get, and a month from now agencies could conceivably go back to the posture that they had in February. Does that make sense? Would you like to see agencies being more aggressive about telework in a post-COVID environment?

Sen. Van Hollen: Well, I’ve always believed that the federal government should allow more teleworking. Obviously, you want to do it in a way that is consistent with the mission, as they are doing now. But I do think for those jobs that complete all of their work and meet the mission through telework, we should expand that as an opportunity. I am not saying we should move the entire federal government to telework wherever possible, but I am saying that it should be more of an option than it was prior to the pandemic. In fact, many of us have been pushing for years to allow greater flexibility when it comes to telework.

Francis: Speaking of moving the federal government, Senator, you are a part of the legislation that would really crack down essentially on the relocation of agencies outside the DC area, prompted by the USDA’s relocation of offices to Kansas City and other efforts that the administration has undertaken. What do you want to see for this administration or some future administration to give you confidence that, when they want to move an agency, it’s for good business reasons and not for other reasons?

Sen. Van Hollen: This is legislation that I have introduced together with Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. She introduced it on the House side. And I think it is what most taxpayers would expect and hope for, which is that, before you relocate a federal agency, you do a cost benefit analysis. You look at things like the cost of rent or buildings and those sort of factors. But you also look at the impact on the agency’s mission. And in the case of the Department of Agriculture programs you just mentioned, the move from the Washington area to Kansas City has totally undermined the important mission. There were lots of experienced scientists working on food science and other issues important to farmers, and they really gutted the agency with that move. And so, before taxpayers are asked to fund a move like that, we should conduct an analysis. You would hope that businesses do that, you would hope that the federal government would do that, and the purpose, Francis, is to make sure we don’t have politically motivated moves. In other words, people just say, well, I would like to grab that agency and put it in my area for political reasons. If there are justifiable policy reasons on the merits we’re doing it, that’s one thing, but it should not be done for political reasons.

Francis: Senator Van Hollen, there’s always more to talk about than there is time to talk about it. I appreciate you joining me today.

Sen. Van Hollen: Great to be with you. Thanks.

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