Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology called upon NASA last week to answer some questions about what they see as the agency’s high telework rate.

According to the April 4 letter, only 31 percent of NASA employees reported for in-person work at the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., on a day-to-day basis in January of this year, and lawmakers want to know why.

“If accurate, this means that the vast majority of NASA headquarters employees remain on a mostly telework or remote working schedule more than one year after President Biden called for all federal agencies to return to in-person work,” the committee members wrote.

“We are concerned with the impact this is having on mission readiness as well as the costs associated with paying for buildings and other facilities that are not being used to their full potential,” the lawmakers wrote.

Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., alongside Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin, R-Texas, and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., sent the letter to NASA Director Bill Nelson last week and requested that he respond to six requests:

  • Why does NASA headquarters remain on a mostly telework or remote work basis?;
  • Provide the average monthly occupancy rate for January, February, and March of 2019 and 2023 for all NASA facilities;
  • Provide an estimate for the number of positions currently at NASA which will likely remain on a remote basis as well as their titles and locations;
  • Provide the number of NASA headquarters employees who telework three or more days a week;
  • Provide a copy of the existing telework policy, forms that employees must sign to be eligible for telework, and criteria supervisors are using to adjudicate requests; and
  • Is the framework developed by NASA at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic still being followed?

“It’s no longer reasonable for federal employees in Washington, D.C., to continue to work remotely while leaving taxpayer-funded office buildings mostly vacant,” the Republican leaders wrote.

They continued, adding, “We know that the lack of in-person communications can lead to errors and delays. For example, a recently published report attributed the one-year delay of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission to, among other things, a lack of informal and impromptu communication among staff caused largely by remote work.”

While the need for in-person work differs between roles, the representatives wrote, there is an intrinsic value to face-to-face communications.

“Given President Biden’s declaration last September that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, NASA needs to explain when and how it plans to transition its workforce back to in-person status,” they concluded.

The three science panel members are giving NASA until April 18, 2023, to respond to their inquiries.

Telework is a hot-button technology issue for the new 118th Congress.

Just last month, members of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee called on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director to review and update the agency’s telework policy, citing that more than 30 percent of OPM’s workforce works in a fully remote capacity and more than 60 percent work hybrid.

In early January, House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., introduced the SHOW UP Act which would roll back Federal agency telework policies to their year-end 2019 levels. The House cleared the bill in early February, and it has been referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The Biden-Harris Administration announced its intent to end the COVID-19 emergency on May 11, and many lawmakers expect Federal agencies to return to the office for that reason – despite strong endorsements that telework provides flexibility and a competitive edge.

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.