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Washington Times: Whistleblower: Federal agency’s HQ is ‘empty’; Vilsack says work is getting done Massive pandemic switch to remote work raises questions on usage, efficiency

  |   By Polling+ Staff


Whistleblower: Federal agency’s HQ is ‘empty’; Vilsack says work is getting done

Massive pandemic switch to remote work raises questions on usage, efficiency

Do the farmers know? The Washington Times reports:

“Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reacted angrily to a whistleblower’s complaint that his headquarters is a post-pandemic telework “ghost town,” calling that an insult to “the USDA family.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, confronted him at a committee hearing with data from the Government Accountability Office saying his Washington headquarters building had an 11% occupancy rate. She also read from a letter a department employee sent lambasting the telework policies.

“Hallways are mostly empty, and offices are unoccupied,” the employee wrote, saying the headquarters “resembles a ghost town.” 

Ms. Ernst said four years after the pandemic started, it’s time to get back employees back to their offices.

Mr. Vilsack said Ms. Ernst was operating on old information.

He said employees are required to be in the office three or four days a week, and he disputed GAO‘s calculation of just an 11% occupancy rate.

“That is not correct. That’s not even close to correct,” he said. “That is not what’s happening in February of 2024.” 

Ms. Ernst has been on a push to have federal employees show up at the buildings taxpayers are paying for. She said she’s also worried remote-work employees are collecting pay as if they lived in high-cost areas, even though they switched their homes to low-cost places.

Local officials in Washington, D.C., and many other U.S. cities have also complained of the lack of daytime foot traffic and commerce in their downtown cores, as staff that worked remotely during the COVID-19 shutdown have grown accustomed to working from home.

Ms. Ernst cited the anonymous department employee, who identified as a supervisor and told GAO investigators that remote work is hurting the mission.

“Remote work and telework employees are often unreachable and do not respond to simple email questions for hours,” the whistleblower said. “This leads to inefficiency in completing tasks in a timely manner and to delays in clearing documents and reports due to the inability to reach colleagues.”

Ms. Ernst asked Mr. Vilsack what kinds of tools his department uses to make sure employees working remotely are on task.

He didn’t answer directly, instead taking umbrage at the general thrust of the questions.

“To suggest that they’re not working, I think, is an affront to the hardworking members of the USDA family,” he said.

He told senators to compare the department’s work currently with past administrations and said employees are “working their tail off.”

“Please don’t tell me the work’s not getting done because I can show you that it is.”

He also said 82% of hours worked nationally are done in the office and in person.”

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The Agriculture Department was created in 1862-the Lincoln Administration. Many other Departments now exist with some – the Carter era Departments of Education and Energy routinely cited by critics as in need of being abolished. One suspects the sensitivity to this whistleblower complaint about the USDA is related to the idea that entire departments of the federal government can be eliminated – to no downside effect!