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OPM examines post-pandemic remote work

The Office of Personnel Management is teeing up guidance as it looks to a future where more feds work remotely under a pay system not necessarily designed for large numbers of workers’ homes and office locations to be separated by the substantial physical distances that technology enables.

The personnel office is working through what potential changes may be needed in regards to locality pay and remote work policies in the post-pandemic era, an OPM official said at an event hosted by ACT-IAC on Thursday.

“There’s a lot of meat on the bone for us there,” said Rob Shriver, the associate director for employee services at OPM. “We’re currently working through that, and I think that we will have some guidance in the first round of guidance that we get out.”

Last month, Shriver said the personnel office is working on guidance for remote and telework in the federal government after the pandemic, which caused the number of teleworking feds to skyrocket because of public health concerns.

The current pay scheme for many feds is based on the General Schedule classification and pay system. The pay of many feds is then supplemented with percentage rate increases based on their geographic location, known as locality pay.

“Traditionally, that program held out because people have had to come into the office regularly,” Shriver said. “What are we going to do now if we have large segments of the federal workforce that aren’t coming into the office and that are working from around the country?”

OPM distinguishes between telework, where employees can work away from the office to some degree but come into the office a certain number of times per pay period, and remote work, where an employee works from a completely different geographic location and doesn’t come into the office regularly.

For teleworkers, their locality pay is still based on the location of the office that they report to, according to OPM guidance on remote work.

The official worksite of remote workers for pay purposes is based on their teleworking location, provided that they don’t meet any temporary teleworking exceptions like those used for masses of the federal workforce to not report to their offices during the pandemic.

There is a concern that fully remote feds could “be able to chase higher locality pay and give themselves raises just by deciding to move to new places,” said Jason Briefel, the director of government and public affairs at Shaw Bransford and Roth, a federal employment law firm. “What does that mean for locality pay?”

Agency executives are already wrestling with these questions, a federal executive said in a not-for-attribution roundtable discussion hosted by FCW on April 13.

“While it’s great to say we can offer incentives in the national capital region if you don’t have to commute to the national office, do I deserve to pay a guy who’s living in Ohio the same salary I’d pay a guy who lives in DC?” that participant said. “This is a challenge I feel like we’re all going to have to wrestle with.”

As to how OPM might address the future of remote work and pay locality, Shriver said that he isn’t sure yet if this issue will require any changes -- and if so, whether they would be legislative or regulatory.

But the fact that current policy means remote workers’ locality pay rate is determined by their home is on the mind of OPM officials, he said.

“I have some concerns about leaving that totally up to where the employee may be living and what that might mean,” he said.

“You have folks that maybe can kind of unilaterally give themselves a pay increase just by moving to a different location, and maybe it’s not even moving that far, depending on how close they might be to a locality boundary,” he explained. “But then I also worry about equity of people doing the same job, and there are challenges with remote work that maybe somebody doesn’t have if they’re coming into the office.”

Either way, Shriver said that remote work and pay locality issues will need to be sorted through if remote work is to become part of overall human capital management and strategic planning.

The personnel office’s considerations are part of a broader look at whether current teleworking and remote work policies would support a more dispersed workforce after the pandemic. The office wants to support agencies with flexible guidance for post- pandemic workforce, he said.

Along with telework, remote work and pay considerations, OPM is also looking into performance management and work hours, Shriver said.

2021 Digital Almanac

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