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Government workers should be back in the office

From torrid inflation to the infant-formula shortage to the war in Ukraine, the U.S. faces an array of crises that demand the full resources and attention of the government. Yet on any given day, large numbers of the 2.1-million-person federal workforce don't come into the office. That's a problem not only for the performance of government, but for public faith in it.

In early 2020, not a single federal agency reported even 25% of employees working remotely full-time; by September 2020, two-thirds of the government did. To cite one example, the Social Security Administration kept its field offices largely closed to the public for more than two years.

The shift to remote work made sense at the start of the pandemic, before the widespread availability of vaccines and treatments. Surveys of federal workers also show that job satisfaction rose during the first year of the pandemic, due to reduced commuting times and better government technology. Now, with more than 90% of federal employees vaccinated, there's no public-health rationale for delaying a return to the office — and it should no longer be difficult to get in-person appointments for basic services.

Even if private-sector employers see benefits in allowing workers to maintain hybrid work arrangements, the standard for public servants is different. Remote work hobbles the ability of government officials to collaborate, respond nimbly to crises, and forge consensus on policy goals. Because taxpayer funds will be spent maintaining federal buildings regardless, it also wastes money and worsens voters' cynicism about government.

President Joe Biden deserves credit for making a return to the office a priority and pledging in his State of the Union address that "the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person." Some three months later, the administration says it has met Biden's goal, though it remains unclear exactly how many employees are in the office and for what portion of the workweek. In a March letter, the ranking Republican on the House oversight committee, Rep. James Comer, asked the administration to provide details on each federal agency's plans to bring their workers back to the office. Comer is still waiting for a response.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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