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National Science Foundation workers are fighting orders to return to the office

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's back-to-school season and soon, for more workers, back-to-the-office season. This fall, employers including BlackRock, Farmers Insurance, even Zoom, are rolling out stricter requirements for in-person work. So is the federal government in a major push, as NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It's been a year and a half since President Biden, in his State of the Union address, first made the appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people. People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices. We're doing that here in the federal government.

HSU: Actually, not really. A whole year later, a government report found many federal buildings still at less than 25% occupancy. House Republicans got on the case early this year, passing a bill called the SHOW UP Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is clear extended telework is not working for the American people.

PAT FALLON: Our constituents have been calling our office and wondering why the IRS, the Social Security Administration, the VA aren't answering their phones.

VIRGINIA FOXX: It's abundantly clear that something must change.

HSU: Well, in April, the Biden administration weighed in, again, telling agency leaders to substantially increase in-person work. And a few weeks ago, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients added a personal touch, writing in a memo, I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in the fall. In some corners of the federal government, that shift is not welcomed at all.

JESUS SORIANO: That's why I'm sleeping not very much.

HSU: Jesus Soriano is a program director with the National Science Foundation. That's the federal agency that funds research and education at the forefront of science and engineering. He's also president of the union that represents the staff scientists who decide what's worth funding and where science should go.

SORIANO: Those employees are not numbers on a spreadsheet. They are those experts in very specific scientific disciplines that have lives.

HSU: Over the last few years, Soriano says, a liberal telework policy allowed the National Science Foundation to hire brilliant Ph.D.s who would have never considered the role before. Pre-pandemic, the assumption was you'd move to the D.C. area, a non-starter for people whose spouses have careers elsewhere or who have family members to care for. And then there's the cost of living.

SORIANO: The area is becoming too expensive for public servants who, in general, make at least 20% less than their counterparts in the private sector.

HSU: Two recent hires told NPR they were clear during interviews that they would never move to be close to headquarters. And while no promises were made, their understanding was it wouldn't be a problem. So last fall, it came as a surprise when employees were asked to report to the office two days per pay period. Now, some people were granted a temporary extension of remote work, but others have been commuting in every month, on their own dime, from all over the country.

SORIANO: From California to Colorado to Florida, etc.

HSU: And then this summer came news that starting in October, the requirement is doubling. People will have to be in the office four days per pay period. Soriano has warned leadership if you force people to choose between their jobs and their family, you will lose out on talent.

KAREN MARRONGELLE: We've always told our workforce, look, we're not going to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic, and we haven't.

HSU: But Karen Marrongelle, chief operating officer at the National Science Foundation, says what they resorted to during COVID wasn't working either.

MARRONGELLE: We were making decisions at that point in a very different environment.

HSU: Yes, projects were getting funded, she says, but mentorships were suffering. People's networks were narrowing. Trust had taken a hit. Now, Marrongelle says they are working with the union on granting some waivers, and she's keeping close tabs on how things are going, what still needs adjusting.

MARRONGELLE: I think one of the challenges is that there's no time to rest.

HSU: Like the pandemic itself, this is new territory with more trial and error ahead.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.