By Dan Gephart, October 16, 2023
Sen. Joni Ernst is clearly not a fan of remote work. She recently accused Federal teleworkers of “fraud.” Dig beyond the headline and you’ll see many of Ernst’s claims were based on outdated reports. But she may have been onto something when she asked how many Feds were still getting location-based pay and Washington, D.C., wages while teleworking from elsewhere.
We now know of at least one remote worker whose actions fit that description. And while those actions were not outright fraudulent, they did show a lack of candor, according to a recent initial decision by a Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge (AJ). In Atterole v. VA, PH-0714-23-0184-I-1 (Sept. 7, 2023)(ID), the Veterans Benefits Administration removed the appellant for failure to follow the agency’s telework policy and lack of candor.
The appellant’s duty station was Baltimore. In the early days of the pandemic, she (like most of her Federal colleagues) was granted 100 percent telework. In December 2020, citing the deaths of her mother and brother-in-law, she requested to work from Port Charlotte, Fla. She said she’d work in Florida from Jan. 4 through March 4, 2021, and return sooner if needed.
The VA Telework policy did not require employees to change their duty station when they are working outside of their geographic region for fewer than six months and their absence is related to medical or other personal reasons. However, the employee was still working and living in Florida seven months later.
She failed to provide a Baltimore address to leadership and didn’t update her telework agreement – violations of agency policy.
Meanwhile, the VBA, concerned about allegations that employees were living in states other than their duty station of record and improperly receiving locality pay, appointed an investigatory board. And the employee’s sworn testimony before that board made matters worse.
At first, the appellant invoked her Fifth Amendment right, then stated that she had “permission to be in a different state but that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.” She also told investigators that “there was no expiration, [that she was] waiting on stuff to handle some personal matters …,” before testifying that other people on the staff were working from different locations than their geographical region. When asked to identify those people, she admitted that she knew of no one else beyond herself.
The AJ noted that while lack of candor doesn’t require intent to deceive, an “element of deception must be demonstrated,” and, in this case, the appellant knowingly gave “evasive and incomplete answers … with the intent to mislead the agency.”
The employee countered that the agency failed to reasonably accommodate her disability and retaliated against her for that activity. Her request to work from home 100 percent of the time was denied. However, the agency granted her numerous accommodations including a light above her desk, a space heater, stand-up desk, ergonomic chair, designated parking space and, in the event her office temperature couldn’t be regulated, the option to work from home temporarily. When the pandemic hit, she was granted 100 percent telework.
The AJ found the employee’s “vague assertions” failed to show by a preponderance of evidence that the EEO activity was either a motivating factor in or a but-for cause of her removal. The AJ concluded that the deciding official properly considered the relevant Douglas factors and found removal to be an appropriate and reasonable penalty. Gephart@FELTG.com