Will federal workers ever come back to downtown Washington?
WASHINGTON — There are evenings when things feel almost normal at the Exchange Saloon, a pub across the street from the White House once popular with federal employees, thousands of whom work in the surrounding buildings. On those days, the bar is crowded with patrons sharing work gossip and munching on burgers or wings. The bartender struggles to hear an order placed above the din of laughter and conversation. As evening deepens, the after-work crowd swells.
Such evenings are rare.
Improbably, the Exchange survived the lockdowns, restrictions and disruptions that marked the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, only to emerge into 2023 haunted by an inescapable question: Now what?
Survival was a feat, one that many businesses in downtown districts across the country, without the steady influx of tourists and commuters, failed to accomplish. Yet even among those that did survive, thriving as they did before the pandemic remains a distant dream.
“There’s an uptick,” a bartender at the Exchange told a Yahoo News reporter one recent night. But, he added, “we’re far from normal standards.”
Although the pain has been felt in every major American city, it has been felt especially deeply in Washington, where remote work has been more popular than in any other American city of significant size. Now, with the pandemic on the wane, district officials are fighting the trend by confronting the enormous institution that has, in their view, made far too little effort to bring its employees back into the office: the federal government.
To regain a lasting sense of normalcy, business owners and civic leaders in the District of Columbia say they need the Washington area’s 300,000 federal employees to return to the office more consistently, much as their counterparts in the private sector have done. (There are, of course, also many workers who never had the luxury of remote work to begin with.)
Last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser used her third swearing-in ceremony to issue a challenge to the Biden administration, with which she is otherwise closely aligned. “We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses and by any user willing to revitalize it,” Bowser said.
So far, however, neither the White House nor the executive branch agencies responsible for government operations — the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management — have responded to Bowser.
Yet the calls for federal employees to curb the work-from-home habit they have so eagerly embraced have only intensified.
“It’s time for federal employees to return to the office,” went the headline of a recent Washington Post editorial. In case the message wasn’t clear, the following Sunday’s edition of the paper carried a front-page article describing D.C.’s downtown as a “deflated balloon” that badly needed the reinvigoration of federal workers, who make up about a quarter of the district’s workforce — and who have felt little pressure from the Biden administration to return to the office.
“It has been pretty much a ghost town,” one downtown resident told the Post.
The federal government continues to operate according to a June 2021 memorandum that allows for a high degree of remote work. The memo has not been updated since, even as workers in sectors such as finance and technology have returned to the office. Each federal agency has been allowed to make its own rules regarding remote work and office presence, without emphasis on the latter.
In a report on telework sent to Congress in December, OPM director Kiran Ahuja wrote that “the use of telework is critical in not only maintaining operations during exigent circumstances, but also in attracting, developing, and maintaining a highly qualified workforce.” According to OPM’s analysis, some 47% of all federal employees were working remotely.
Federal agencies would be “expanding their telework eligibility criteria and policies,” Ahuja wrote.
They may not get the chance to do so. Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, are looking to make federal remote work an issue (Congress ultimately has oversight of how the District of Columbia is managed). Last month, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., introduced the SHOW UP Act, intended to mandate that federal agencies curtail their lenient remote work policies.
“President Biden’s unnecessary expansion of telework crippled the ability of departments and agencies to fulfill their responsibilities and created cumbersome backlogs,” Comer said in a statement accompanying his legislation. “The federal government exists to serve the American people and these substantial delays for basic services are unacceptable.”
Comer’s bill gained support from Washington’s congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a liberal Democrat who has little in common politically with the conservative Kentuckian. Norton wound up retracting her support, though, even as she continued to maintain that “we need to strike a balance between telework and in-person interactions, which both have value.”
Comer’s bill passed the House last week and now heads to the Senate, where the measure is likely to be defeated by the Democrats, who are closely affiliated with the public sector unions that represent federal workers. As the proposal was headed for a vote, the American Federation of Government Employees sent House Republicans a letter arguing that forcing federal employees back into the office “would cause a significant disruption to current agency operations and likely harm productivity.”
In fact, some have argued that remote work is causing productivity to drop. The matter remains unsettled, as does much else about Americans’ experience with the pandemic.
When reached by Yahoo News, a press representative for the Office of Management and Budget sent a list of talking points that did not address specific questions about where the agency’s director, Shalanda Young, stood on the matter. That kind of reticence from top Biden administration officials has frustrated Bowser and her deputies, especially as Washington continues to have the lowest office attendance among the nation’s largest cities.
A once red-hot commercial real estate market has cooled as a result; the resulting depreciation in the value of office towers could cost Washington billions in lost tax revenue.
Proponents of remote work say the practice allows employers to hire from a more diverse pool of applicants. Remote work favors parents who have child care duties and people for whom a trip to the office may mean a long commute. Some also say the district’s revitalization is not their concern.
“I was not hired to be an economic engine,” one employee of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development groused to Politico.
D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio acknowledges the benefits of remote work but suggests that the White House may be overthinking the issue.
“We really need to advance that conversation quicker,” he told Yahoo News during an interview outside the John A. Wilson Building, where Washington’s city government is housed — and where employees returned to their offices and cubicles many months ago, under what Falcicchio praised as a Bowser plan that stressed both flexibility and collaboration.
He suggested that a “leadership void” was preventing the White House from taking decisive action in calling employees back.
In response to a question about remote work, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters last month that “we certainly follow the science and listen to the experts” when it comes to pandemic policy. Most experts, however, do not believe that remote work policies are keeping people safe from the coronavirus, especially since airplanes, restaurants and sports arenas are packed once more.
Jean-Pierre also said that “increasing the supply of affordable housing is a priority of this administration,” but there has been no indication that the White House is amenable to Bowser’s request that it turn over mostly empty federal buildings to the District of Columbia for potential conversion into apartment units.
It was almost one year ago that President Biden used his first State of the Union address to urge white-collar employees back into the offices that had been sitting empty since the start of the pandemic, frustrating landlords, corporate executives and the owners of small businesses that cannot survive without consistent workday crowds.
“It's time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” the president said. By that time, the coronavirus had receded significantly. In the West Wing, office work was already the norm — and continues to be. Staffers appear to have wide leniency to work from home, especially if a child is sick or there are pressing errands that cannot be delayed. But the expectation is clearly for office presence, especially on any day when the president is not traveling to his Delaware beach house, Camp David or somewhere else.
Falcicchio said Bowser’s administration has gone to the West Wing to request a formalization of federal remote work policies, but has so far not been able to secure a formal commitment.
Although the absence of remote workers has been especially felt in Washington — where the federal government is not only the biggest employer but also the largest landlord, accounting for one-third of all downtown leases — almost every American city has thousands of federal workers.
“I think it sets a tone for the rest of the country,” Falcicchio said.
The issue is not confined to cities. In the Central Valley of California, where the massive $16 billion water project known as the Delta Tunnel has been taking shape, opponent Rep. Josh Harder vented his frustration at the Army Corps of Engineers’ insistence on holding remote public meetings by hosting an in-person town hall intended to highlight the refusal of public officials to hear complaints directly, without the mediation of a computer screen.
“It’s unacceptable that families in Stockton in my district are waiting months for their Social Security checks because Washington bureaucrats are still sitting at home,” Harder told Yahoo News, referring to an impoverished city at the northern edge of the Central Valley. “My team fights every day for families struggling to get by, and yet one in 20 of our phone calls are actually answered by the Social Security Administration. It’s time for people to get back to work.”
Across the Altamont Pass in San Francisco, streets remain empty, free of the fleece-vest-wearing tech workers who once crowded into fast-casual restaurants for lunch. Parts of the city have been taken over by homeless encampments where substance abuse runs rampant. The pattern has been repeated across the nation, including in a Washington park just blocks from the White House that has turned into a tent city.
Falcicchio was blunt about the stakes as he spoke to Yahoo News, looking out across a plaza that was mostly empty of office workers. Offices may not be the solution to all that ails the American city, but those problems will only persist and worsen if workers stay home.
He envisioned those offices full again, the streets thriving, the urban landscape reimagined for the 21st century.
“That's how we begin to bring back cities,” he said.