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Maryland’s U.S. senators say coronavirus makes it ‘urgent’ to allow more federal employees to work remotely

Maryland’s U.S. senators on Wednesday stepped up their efforts to allow more federal employees to work remotely, saying the new coronavirus has made the need for telework “particularly urgent.”

Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin have long been asking the Trump administration to expand telecommuting opportunities for hundreds of thousands of federal workers, saying remote work increases productivity and boosts employee morale,.

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On Wednesday, the two Democrats introduced a bill to expand teleworking by requiring federal agencies to set goals for employee participation, report subsequent cost savings, and notify Congress of any plans to restrict working at home.

The coronavirus outbreak provides new impetus for their efforts, the lawmakers said.

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“It obviously makes sense to have a robust telework plan in place both for ongoing operations, but especially during this health crisis,” Van Hollen said. “When you see a situation like this, it underscores the importance of having that option available.”

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced a companion measure on the House side.

Maryland has one of the largest federal workforces in the country, with more than 128,000 federal workers based in the state, according to government data.

In December, Van Hollen and Cardin were among lawmakers urging Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul to reconsider his cancellation of a telework pilot program that let people work from home once or twice a week. Social Security employs roughly 11,000 people in Maryland, many of them at the agency’s headquarters in Woodlawn.

Social Security officials say they made the move to make customer service more timely and accurate. In an “open letter to the public," Saul said the agency must dramatically improve on that front, citing wait times and other issues.

Across many federal government agencies, the Trump administration had been scaling back working remotely on grounds that it made employees less accountable.

After canceling the telework pilot, Social Security announced it would further scale back telework. Those changes took effect March 2.

“It’s coming right in the middle of coronavirus,” said Ralph de Juliis, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents Social Security workers in telecommunication centers and field offices across the nation. Morale already took a hit with the telework changes, De Juliis said, but now with U.S. coronavirus cases growing, “everyone is anxious.”

Before that, the federal government largely encouraged telecommuting. The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act required agencies to write policies on working from home.

In recent days, the Trump administration has been developing new workplace plans to cope with the virus.

In a memorandum last Saturday, the Office of Personnel Management requested that agencies “immediately review their current telework policies and ensure that written telework agreements are in place for as many employees as possible.”

OPM said agencies should reassess their criteria for telework eligibility “to determine if additional categories of employees may be classified as telework eligible.”

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