Empty CMS parking lot stirs questions about staff productivity

Sen. Bill Cassidy, MD, pressed HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on the agency's remote work policies and raised questions around employees' productivity during a Senate Finance Committee hearing March 22.

"How do we know the people of HHS are working?" the Louisiana Republican asked while presenting a photo of what he said was an empty parking lot at CMS' headquarters at 10:40 a.m. March 20.

"If there's no cars, the building is empty," Dr. Cassidy said. "How many full-time employees are at their desk in one of these buildings every day? 

Mr. Becerra told the senator that HHS employs nearly 90,000 people across the country and in many locations. After several back-and-forths, the secretary told the senator that HHS ensures that employees are "performing and delivering."

"How many folks are actually sitting at their desk in a government building when they are working full-time every day? Clearly sir you don't want to answer the question. That kind of begs that the answer may not be flattering,” Dr. Cassidy responded.

The senator cited "generous telework policies" that he said were included in recent CMS job postings and claimed that HHS employees have told him they are only required to come into the office once a week. Dr. Cassidy specifically inquired about the percentage of full-time employees that worked in-person before the pandemic and are now physically back at their desk on any given day. He also sought VPN data to show that HHS employees are accessing their computers and emails while working remotely, and asked if salary adjustments have been made for employees that were originally hired in a high cost of living area but now work remotely somewhere else.

"You're limiting the scope of what we do. We have investigators who never sit at desks," Mr. Becerra said. "Depending on the work that has to be performed, they will be in the office at times, sometimes they may be in the field. But what's important is that they're performing."

Last September, Dr. Cassidy posed similar questions about remote work policies to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD.

HHS previously told Congress that among its 80,530 total employees in fiscal year 2018, 51 percent were "teleworking." Among all employees who were eligible for telework in 2018, 75 percent had chosen that route.

According to HHS' current workplace flexibility policy, "a position may be eligible for remote work (within or outside of the local commuting area) if the nature of work requires onsite work to be performed less than two days during a typical bi-weekly pay period." 

The policy allows the agency to terminate an employee for diminished performance and provides details about how employee productivity is overseen by managers. HHS is also required to report productivity and remote participation data to the Office of Personnel Management annually.

The full policy, which took effect Feb. 9, 2022, is available here. Becker's has reached out to HHS for additional comment and will update this article if more information becomes available.

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