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Ernst: Government employees need to get back to work

Originally published in Washington Examiner

Government employees showing up for work shouldn’t make headlines. But recently, it has.

Bureaucrats from the Department of Labor gathered at work earlier this year to protest their “right to work remotely.” And if that isn’t rich enough, the event occurred outside of a federal building named in honor of John F. Kennedy, the president who inspired the nation with his call to public service: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

In President Joe Biden’s backward world, Kennedy’s call has been flipped upside down.

Not even the best-performing federal agency is using 50% of its office space, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

I recently asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Small Business Administrator Isabella Guzman about their headquarters’ utilization rates (11% and 9%, respectively, according to GAO) and what they planned to do about it. Their answers were shocking.

Vilsack said not only was GAO wrong, but so was his own employee, who wrote to me calling the Agriculture Department headquarters “a ghost town.” Guzman took the same approach, blaming GAO for saying the Small Business Administration headquarters was basically empty.

Meanwhile, the Public Buildings Reform Board, an independent agency that Congress established to address the government’s excess real estate problem, found what GAO did: These buildings are abandoned.

According to the Public Buildings Reform Board, just 456 employees showed up at Vilsack’s USDA headquarters (which can fit 7,500 employees) on any given day in 2023. 

And it’s not just USDA. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, home of the bubble bath bureaucrat, just 172 people bothered to show up at the agency’s headquarters each day in 2023.

All of this comes in spite of an April 2023 directive from the Office of Management and Budget directing agencies to get their employees back to the office. 

So why are the buildings still empty? Unions.

Federal employee unions have been fighting tooth and nail against returning to work. They’re swamping the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which resolves disputes between agencies and unions, with telework-related grievances, often forcing major agencies such as the DOL and the Federal Aviation Administration to delay their return-to-work plans. I can only hope the FAA inspector, whose job it is to make sure airplane doors don’t fly off midflight, wasn’t inspecting planes remotely.

And it’s not just federal unions. One union representing employees of the city government in Washington, D.C. (itself receiving significant federal subsidiestold reporters it opposed reducing weekly teleworking days from two to one “for several critical reasons, including safety concerns [and] environmental impact.”

Try telling a farmer or a warehouse worker in Iowa that working one more day in the office creates “safety concerns!”

If unions are going to keep working against the public’s interest, it’s time to get serious about taxpayer-funded union time, which allows federal employees to work for their union, not the agency, on the taxpayer’s dime. This is why I successfully passed a law to require all agencies to report their utilization rates, the number of employees in the office, and to give Congress copies of all agreements they’ve struck with federal employee unions related to telework. In addition, I’m working to pass my Taxpayer-Funded Union Time Transparency Act to expose exactly how much of the public’s tax money is subsidizing unions’ fight against returning to work.

Perhaps a new version of Kennedy’s inspiring quote should go something like this: “Do public servants serve the public or themselves?” I know the answer — as do America’s taxpayers.

Joni Ernst, a native of Red Oak and a combat veteran, represents Iowa in the United States Senate.