Quarter of Federal Health Workers Failed To Check Email Amid Pandemic, Report Reveals

June 17, 2022

In the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, a quarter of employees at the federal government's top health agency failed to even check their emails as they worked remotely, according to internal documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

An estimated 25 percent of Department of Health and Human Services employees neglected to log on to the agency's software suite, which includes their email, work files, video conference calls, and other applications needed to perform remote work, according to the internal documents. The report, commissioned by then-HHS chief of staff Brian Harrison, measured employees' inactivity on a day-to-day basis between March 2020 and December 2020. The documents, portions of which were leaked by a whistleblower to the Functional Government Initiative and reviewed by the Free Beacon, state that all HHS employees had secure access to these accounts to work remotely.

Federal employees have begun to return to the office in recent months, but the Biden administration has explored ways to make pandemic telework policies permanent. The effort is backed by House Democrats, who on Wednesday advanced a bill that would require agencies to provide advance notice to Congress and the Office of Personnel Management if they want workers to return to the office.

Harrison, now a Republican state representative in Texas, said he grew concerned in the early months of the pandemic that lenient telework policies led to inefficient output from employees. He said he began to track office attendance and found fewer than 10 percent of employees showed up at certain points in 2020. The discovery led him to conduct a comprehensive review of how much remote work employees were doing. 

"Almost everyone was home at the federal health agency responding to a pandemic—I found that problematic and worked to safely increase those numbers," Harrison told the Free Beacon. "Biden sent everyone back home, and you can't run HHS like that effectively."

Harrison did not receive the results of the report until January 2021—a week before the Biden administration took over. Biden on his first day in office issued an executive order that included a mask mandate for federal workers and directed agencies to explore new telework policies. The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the operation of all federal agencies, implemented guidance days later that stated: "Every effort will be made to maximize the use of remote work during widespread community transmission."

Harrison said it is likely that these new telework policies have only worsened work participation. A top official at the Food and Drug Administration admitted the agency lost a 34-page whistleblower report sent in October 2021 that warned about an imminent baby formula shortage, which became a rampant issue for the Biden administration by May. The report, lost in an FDA mail room, did not reach the department's food policy deputy commissioner until February. FDA commissioner Robert Califf said the lost document was a "technical issue" that could be attributed to poor coordination at the agency.

Peter McGinnis, the communications director for the Functional Government Initiative, said the Biden administration's push for unnecessary telework has harmed taxpayers.

"Work from home? Perhaps not working at all," McGinnis told the Free Beacon. "Sadly, this dysfunction now threatens the health of mothers and children."

House Republicans introduced a bill in May that would reestablish pre-pandemic telework policies for federal workers and require agencies to submit a report on the impact of their telework policies since 2020. Rep. Yvette Herrell (R., N.M.), who sponsored the bill, said the Biden administration needs to justify the need for expanded telework to taxpayers.

"Extending pandemic-era telework for no good reason hurts Americans who need in-person attention and care," Herrell told the Free Beacon. "The first priority of public employees should be to serve their employers, the American people."

HHS, which employs more than 80,000 workers and requested a mandatory budget of $1.7 trillion for 2023, did not respond to a request for comment.

Herrell said the negative impact of telework goes beyond HHS. CNN reported that in the first week of Biden's presidency several White House national security workers were forced to return to remote work, which prevented them from accessing classified materials crucial to their jobs. The Internal Revenue Service this year has seen historic delays in tax returns that have left its facilities full of unchecked paperwork. The Department of Veterans Affairs has similarly struggled with overdue disability claims amid the pandemic.

Previous administrations debated telework policies before the pandemic. The Obama administration expanded telework opportunities, but these programs were reduced under former president Donald Trump.

Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) has pressed several federal agencies to provide more information on the impact of their telework policies, saying they have hindered the administration's ability to address ongoing crises, including the baby formula shortage.

"Americans expect accountability from an agency that deals with some of the nation's most difficult and complex challenges," Burr told the Free Beacon.