Bipartisan Senate Bill Would Set Limit on Federal Employees Telework

This week, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced the Back to Work Act of 2024 (S. 4266), which would require federal employees to spend 60% of their work hours in the office, a slight increase from the 50% in-office policies at many agencies. The Roundtable supports various efforts by policymakers to enact workplace return policies for federal workers. (Romney-Manchin news release and The Register-Herald)

Senate Bills

  • The bipartisan Senate bill, in addition to the40% cap on remote work within a federal employee’s pay period, would also require agencies to report on the productivity and potential negative effects of their employees’ telework arrangements. (Government Executive, April 30)
  • A separate bipartisan Senate bill introduced on April 3 would increase oversight of federal telework policies after a recent report showed government agency headquarters in Washington, DC are using an average of 12% of their office space. (Senate Committee news release and Public Buildings Reform Board report).
  • The Telework Transparency Act (S. 4043) from Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Gary Peters (D-MI), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would require agencies to gather information on how telework impacts agency performance and federal property decisions. (Government Executive, April 8 and Federal News Network, April 3)

House Efforts

House Oversight and Accountablity Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY)
  • A Biden administration official testified last week before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee that federal agency workers should spend at least half of their working hours at their office sites. (Committee hearing, April 30)
  • “[For] office workers, the place where there is consistency across agencies, we’ve been clear that our expectation is for agencies to be achieving at least 50% [in-person work], while giving them flexibility for how best to deliver based on their diverse mission space. That’s consistent with where the private sector is, and we’ll continue to adjust as needed,” said Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller. ( Government Executive, April 30 and Miller’s written testimony)
  • Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) responded, “At the onset of the COVID pandemic, massive federal employee telework was a justifiable necessity, but that necessity ended a long time ago.” (Committee hearing, April 30)

The Roundtable View

Jeffrey DeBoer testifying on April 30, 2024 before House Oversight Subcommittee
  • Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, commended the efforts of Chairman Comer before a House subcommittee hearing last week, noting that the SHOW UP Act passed over a year ago and should be enacted into law. (Roundtable WeeklyOct. 20 and Feb. 3, 2023)
  • DeBoer emphasized during the April 30 hearing that a return to in-person work is critical for the health of our cities, local economies, tax bases, and small businesses. “While private sector office occupancy is slowly picking up, the federal office workforce is behaving as if the pandemic still exists. This is despite President Biden’s call for agencies to return to pre-pandemic workplace practices,” DeBoer testified. (Roundtable Weekly, May 3)
  • The Real Estate Roundtable has also urged members of the Senate and President Biden to end the “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees” and for federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices. (RER letter to the Senate, April 12, 2023 and RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)

The Roundtable will discuss the evolving remote work issue during its all-member June 20-21 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

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Roundtable’s William C. Rudin Discusses Public Policies to Strengthen CRE and the Economy

Real Estate Roundtable Chairman Emeritus (2015-2018) William C. Rudin (Co-Executive Chairman, Rudin)

Real Estate Roundtable Chairman Emeritus (2015-2018) William C. Rudin (Co-Executive Chairman, Rudin) discussed commercial real estate conditions on CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning, emphasizing how public policies could help the industry meet significant challenges as it faces a wave of looming maturities in a high-interest rate environment.

Federal Action Needed

  • Rudin noted that unless a property owner has a top-tier asset with a stable long-term lease, liquidity is a major issue. “The federal government and the Federal Reserve have to keep giving the banks flexibility to be able to restructure some of the loans.” (Watch Rudin’s comments)
  • Rudin added, “The federal government should support legislation to help incentivize owners to convert obsolete office buildings to residential—and the federal government should be getting their employees back into the office space.” (Entire Rudin interview)
  • Rudin referenced recent testimony by Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer that addressed these issues during a House subcommitteeon the “Health of the Commercial Real Estate Markets and Removing Regulatory Hurdles to Ensure Continued Strength.” (Roundtable Weekly, May 3 and video of DeBoer’s testimony)

Roundtable Recommendations

Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer
  • The Roundtable’s testimony last week addressed a wide swath of concerns for owners, lenders, and local communities. DeBoer discussed specific issues with House policymakers, including market liquidity, the state of the office sector, remote work, affordable housing, and property conversions. (DeBoer’s oral statement and written testimony)
  • DeBoer also emphasized the need for lawmakers to stimulate the production of affordable housing by converting obsolete buildings into housing, increasing the Low Income Housing Tax Credit volume caps, incentivizing local zoning and permitting reforms, increasing efficiency in the Section 8 housing voucher program, and more. (Roundtable Weekly, May 3)
  • Separately, The Roundtable and a broad real estate coalition submitted a set of specific policy recommendations last week to Congress detailing a host of pending legislative and regulatory actions that would help provide housing to more Americans. (Roundtable Weekly, May 3)

The Roundtable’s all-member Annual Meeting on June 20-21 in Washington, DC will include speakers and policy advisor committee meetings focused on many of these topics.

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Fed Report Cites Office Loans as Potential Economic Vulnerability

The Federal Reserve Board’s semiannual Financial Stability Report, April 2024

Potential losses from certain office real estate loans are an economic vulnerability within the U.S. financial system—yet considered less of a threat than last year, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s semiannual Financial Stability Report. The Fed report noted that if inflation persists and higher interest rates linger during the ongoing, post-pandemic adjustment to remote work, a wave of maturing loans could pose CRE refinancing risks for regional U.S. banks. (Fed report | Bloomberg and Reuters, April 19)

Office Sector Risk

  • The financial stability report focused on four areas of risk, including asset valuations. CRE stress was the third most cited risk, moving down from second in last October’s survey. (KPMG, April 22, 2024 and Roundtable Weekly, Oct. 27, 2023)
  • This month’s Fed report also acknowledged unique strains on CRE, especially in the office sector, “where vulnerabilities have mounted in the post-pandemic period.”
  • The report added that continued economic pressures could reduce investor risk appetite and lead to a “more pronounced correction in commercial property prices.” This, in turn, could “reduce the willingness of financial intermediaries to supply credit to the economy” and further weigh on overall economic activity.
  • Despite ongoing concerns about CRE, the Fed survey also found that the issuance of non-agency securities started to recover in the first three months of 2024.
  • A separate report from DoubleLine shows signs of improvement for the commercial mortgage-backed securities market and other capital markets and notes that borrowers in some sectors, including office, are finding access to credit. (Bloomberg, April 24)

The Roundtable’s all-member June 20-21 Annual Meeting will include a Joint Research Committee and Real Estate Capital Policy Advisory Committee Meeting to drill down into specific CRE capital and credit market trends and issues.

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Senate Bill Calls for More Federal Telework Data as Study Shows DC Agencies Using 12 Percent of Office Space

A bipartisan Senate bill introduced on April 3 would increase oversight of federal telework policies after a recent report showed government agency headquarters in Washington, DC are using an average of 12% of their office space. (Committee news release and Public Buildings Reform Board report)

Congressional Push

  • The Telework Transparency Act (S. 4043) from Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Gary Peters (D-MI), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would require agencies to gather information on how telework impacts agency performance and federal property decisions. (Government Executive, April 8 and Federal News Network, April 3)
  • Last month’s report from the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) concludes that the “massive scale” of underutilized federal property creates an “outsized opportunity to save money and improve outcomes through property disposals and smarter real estate decisions.” (GlobeSt, April 9 and Bisnow, April 3)

Roundtable Efforts

Jeffrey DeBoer, President and CEO, The Real Estate Roundtable
  • The Real Estate Roundtable wrote to members of the Senate about the need for the federal government to end its “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees” and for federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices. (RER letter to the Senate, April 12, 2023 and Commercial Observer, April 14, 2023)
  • Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, sent a similar request to President Biden, noting that federal telework policies were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.” (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)
  • The economic impact of remote work in the public and private sectors will be discussed next week during The Roundtable’s Spring Meeting in Washington, DC. (Roundtable-level members only).  

Policymaker guests will include House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), House Financial Services Committee Member Rep. French Hill (R-AR), and Jared Bernstein, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

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GAO Reports All Federal Agencies at Less Than 50 Percent Occupancy

Government Accountability Office

More than half of the federal workforce is not working in their agency offices, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) released a list this week based on the GAO data that shows federal space utilization percentages range from a low of 7% to 49% with most agencies using less than 30%. (Agency list | Sen. Ernst news release | DailyMail, Dec. 6)

Federal Employees’ Return to Office

  • The GAO statistics released by Sen. Ernst, the Ranking Member of the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, covers 24 agencies for one week between January and March 2023. Sen. Ernst told Federal News Network this week that she is pushing the federal government to get workers back to their offices or sell their unused space.
  • In August, Ernst demanded investigations into federal departments and agencies to determine the impact of telework on the delivery and response times of government services. That same month, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients directed cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Federal News Network, Nov. 30 | (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Roundtable Weekly, Aug. 11)
  • Since the pandemic, Congress has held multiple hearings and introduced legislation in both the House and Senate about the government’s remote work policies. (Roundtable WeeklyDec. 1)
  • The General Services Administration’s (GSA) Robin Carnahan recently told the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability that her agency sees an opportunity to reduce the government’s real-estate footprint by up to 30% in the coming years. (Federal News Network, Nov. 14)

Roundtable Response

  • RER Chair John Fish (Chairman & CEO, Suffolk), above, expressed the industry’s concern about government employees’ reluctant return to their offices in last week’s Wall Street Journal. “Other parts of the country with large federal workforces are also struggling to bring back workers. Whether you’re talking about downtown Boston, or Denver or Northern Virginia, occupancy is down substantially,” said Fish. (WSJ, Nov. 28)

Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer has consistently emphasized that federal policies promoting remote work undermine the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President BidenDec. 2022; RER letter to Senate, April 2023)

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The Administration and Congress Continue to Urge Federal Agencies to Return to the Office

Although the Biden administration and Congress continue to urge federal agencies to end pandemic-era telework policies, officials acknowledge they have yet to reach their return-to-office objectives, with only about half of cabinet agencies having achieved the goal of workplace return by January. (Axios, Nov. 30)

Congressional and Administration Efforts

  • On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability held a hearing titled, “Oversight of Federal Agencies’ Post-Pandemic Telework Policies,” to discuss the current status of telework policies within various federal agencies.
  • White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients has been privately urging cabinet secretaries to address the significant number of federal workers who continue to work remotely, encouraging a shift away from persistent work-from-home practices. (Axios, Nov. 30)
  • RER Chair John Fish (SUFFOLK) (above) was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, voicing the industry’s concern for stalled return to the workplace. “Other parts of the country with large federal workforces are also struggling to bring back workers. “Whether you’re talking about downtown Boston, or Denver or Northern Virginia, occupancy is down substantially,” said Fish. (WSJ, Nov. 28)
  • Unions representing federal workers strongly support work from home and have pushed back against the Biden administration’s workplace return goals. (BGov, Sept. 14; Federal Times, Aug. 7)
  • Since the pandemic, Congress has held multiple hearings and introduced legislation in both the House and Senate aimed at solidifying official government definitions of remote work and enhancing the accountability and transparency of federal telework policies. (Roundtable Weekly, Oct. 20)

Roundtable Advocacy

  • The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 2022; RER letter to Senate, April 2023)
  • In August, the White House ordered cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Roundtable Weekly,Aug. 11)

Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer has repeatedly emphasized that remote working by federal employees is undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses.

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Potential CRE Losses Cited as Major Economic Concern in Fed’s Financial Stability Report

Elevated commercial real estate valuations are increasingly viewed as a near-term risk that could stress the U.S. financial system, according to the Federal Reserve’s October 2023 Financial Stability Report. The central bank’s semiannual report also cited inflationary pressures, interest rate increases, and global economic volatility as vulnerabilities—even though survey data was collected before the recent escalation of geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. (Fed’s Financial Stability Report, Oct. 2023)

CRE Risk Emphasized

  • Seventy-two percent of all participants in the Fed’s survey cited the potential for large losses on commercial real estate and residential real estate—along with persistent inflation and monetary tightening­—as major risks.
  • The CRE asset valuation problem noted in the Fed Report is influenced by an ongoing lack of price discovery, which creates significant refinancing challenges. GlobeSt reported Oct 24 on the report, noting that “With transactions down and many sellers holding off, waiting for improved pricing while a lot of buyers look for bargains in distress, it’s hard to tell how much properties should be worth.”

WorkPlace Return Pressure

  • The Fed report warns, “If the economy were to slow unexpectedly … investor risk appetite and asset prices might decline, and valuations in the office building sector appear particularly vulnerable given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding post-pandemic norms regarding return to work. A correction in office property valuations accompanied by even a mild recession could result in significant losses for a range of financial institutions with sizable exposures, including some regional and community banks and insurance companies.”

Additional risks that continued to feature prominently in the Fed survey were associated with the reemergence of banking-sector stress, market liquidity strains, and volatility.

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Senate Bill Introduced to Define Federal Remote Work Roles; GSA Inspector General to Investigate Agency Telework Policies

Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) recently introduced the Telework Reform Act to codify government definitions of remote work and improve the accountability and transparency of federal telework programs. Meanwhile, the Inspector General of the General Services Administration (GSA) confirmed an audit is underway that is focused on how the agency manages telework and remote positions for over one million federal workers. (Lankford news release, Oct. 12 | Senate bill S. 3015) | Washington Times, Oct. 18)

Congressional Efforts

  • The Senate legislation would require teleworking federal employees to return to their offices at least twice per two-week pay period. The bill also includes measures that would enforce annual reviews of telework agreements, mandate training for managers, and improve performance management, data accuracy, and cyber-security. (Government Executive, Oct. 13 and Federal News Network, Oct. 17)
  • Separately, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is seeking to add an amendment to federal spending bills that would force agencies to provide details on the cost of telework. “There’s no better way to start paying off our nation’s over $33 trillion debt than a clearance sale on unused office space.” (Washington Times, Oct. 18 | BGov, Sept. 14)

  • A recent letter from the GSA’s Inspector General to Sen. Ernst confirmed the IG’s oversight investigation into the agency’s telework policies. (Washington Times, Oct. 18)
  • As the largest landlord in the United States, GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) owns and leases more than 8,800 assets and maintains an inventory of more than 370 million square feet of rentable workspace. (GSA Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2022-2026)
  • The Senate actions come as a House subcommittee announced it will hold a second hearing on federal agencies’ post-pandemic telework policies. (See Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15 for coverage of the first hearing).
  • Language similar to the SHOW UP Act is included in House-passed appropriations legislation. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15)

Roundtable Advocacy

  • The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 2022; RER letter to Senate, April 2023)
  • In April, the White House Office of Personnel Management announced it was ending its “maximum telework” directive to federal agencies (Roundtable Weekly, April 21)
  • In August, the White House ordered Cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Roundtable Weekly, Aug. 11)

Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, repeatedly has emphasized that remote working by federal employees is undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. (Commercial Observer and The Hill, April 14) 

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Congress Seeks to Include Legislative Language in Spending Bills Addressing Federal Workers’ Return to Offices

House and Senate lawmakers are looking to change current federal workforce telework policies by including language in annual spending bills under consideration by Congress. Yesterday, a House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee held a hearing on “Oversight of Federal Agencies’ Post-Pandemic Telework Policies” and efforts to mandate federal workers return to their offices. (BGov, Sept. 14)

Federal Telework

  • The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)
  • The White House directed Cabinet officials on Aug. 4 to increase the return of federal employees to their offices this fall as a “critical” part of fulfilling the mission of government agencies. (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Axios, Aug. 4
  • In the House, Republicans inserted language into the Financial Services-General Government spending bill (H.R. 4664) that would defund any agency that does not return to 2019 telework practices.
  • The House bill states, “Within 30 days of enactment of this Act, the Committee requires Federal agencies to reinstate and apply their pre-pandemic telework policies, practices, and levels in effect as of December 31, 2019, or they cannot obligate or expend funding for fiscal year 2024.”
  • The Senate’s Appropriations bill for FY 2024 (S. 2309) is far more flexible, requiring agencies to only “examine how policies for in-person work, telework, and remote work impact agency productivity and performance as well as how effectively and efficiently agencies are able to carry out their missions and serve the public.” (Government Executive, Sept. 5 and FedWeek, July 18)
  • Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is seeking to add an amendment to federal spending bills that would force agencies to provide details on the cost of telework. “You have bureaucrats that are doing bubble baths during their conference calls for work. So you federal employees that are out there, we’re coming after you,” Ernst said recently. (BGov, Sept. 14)

Roundtable Calls for Workplace Return

  • Today Real Estate Roundtable Chairman Emeritus Bill Rudin (Co-Chairman and CEO, Rudin Management Co.) discussed the return-to-office trend in New York City, the challenge of property conversions, the need to increase the housing supply, and other issues facing CRE on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street.

Marcus & Millichap President and CEO, Hessam Nadji and former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, will lead the live webcast discussion on the economic factors, including Federal Reserve policy, impacting the commercial real estate market. DeBoer, Tom McGee, President and CEO of ICSC and Sharon Wilson GĂ©no, President of NMHC will join the conversation as CRE industry leaders. (Register here)

White House Directs Agencies to Increase Return of Employees to Federal Offices

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, above, directed Cabinet officials on Aug. 4 to increase the return of federal employees to their offices this fall as a “critical” part of fulfilling the mission of government agencies. The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Axios, Aug. 4 | RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)

Back-to-Office Fed Policies

  • Zients informed administration officials, “As we look towards the fall, your agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work for your team. This is a priority of the president â€” and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October.” (Reuters, Aug 5 and The Washington Post, Aug. 4)
  • Empty federal offices have depressed local economies, according to a July 18 Federal News Network (FNN) broadcast. (Listen or read transcript from Federal Drive with Tom Temin)
  • An updated list of agencies’ return-to-office policies is available online through the Federal News Network. Meanwhile, Republican leaders on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee have also urged agency officials to encourage a return-to-office, threatening this week to “resort to compulsory measures” in their probe of federal agencies’ telework polices.

Roundtable Weighs In Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer

  • In an April letter to all U.S. Senators, Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, emphasized, “The executive branch’s current policies are undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. Federal agencies should return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices.” (RER letter to the Senate, April 12).

In a similar letter to President Biden in December, DeBoer noted that federal telework policies were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.” (Commercial Observer, April 14 and RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12)

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