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Heinrich introduces bill to open federal worksites

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich joined a bipartisan group of senators on legislation that would require federal agencies to quickly develop plans for their employees to return to their workstations.

The Return Employees To Understaffed Worksites to Reopen Now Act, or RETURN Act, would direct federal agencies to quickly develop plans to resume in-person work. Many federal employees have been working remotely since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Heinrich said in a news release the result has been case backlogs and delays at some agencies.

“Federal agencies provide critical services that can serve as a lifeline for many New Mexicans, especially our seniors and veterans,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Almost every industry has had to make changes because of the pandemic to ensure their services remain intact — a federal agency is no exception.”

Heinrich joined Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona in introducing the legislation.

“Providing services online and creating flexibility for remote work are important to modernizing our government, but cannot take the place of providing essential services in person,” Heinrich said. “That’s especially true for so many New Mexicans who lack access to broadband. I’m proud to introduce the bipartisan RETURN Act that requires concrete plans for return to in-person operation at federal agencies, and guarantees New Mexicans can get the support they need.”

Heinrich said in a news release that extended absences of federal employees have led to a sharp rise in backlogged cases within the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service has warned people should expect delays in processing 2021 tax returns and Social Security Administration offices are still closed to the public.

The six-page bill:

  • Directs federal agencies to submit to Congress and publish on their website a plan for the agency to resume in-person operations within 30 days of the bill being enacted.
  • Allows employees who can complete their tasks remotely to continue to do so.
  • Creates guidelines for remote workers who handle sensitive or private information.
  • Requires agencies to create performance metrics to remote workers.
  • Calls for agencies to create plans to work remote when there is an increase in COVID transmission.
  • Requires agencies to report on the use of their physical work space and recommends ending leases for underused spaces.