Congress to agencies: Phone it in

If a proposed amendment passes, some federal managers could face unprecedented penalties of $5 million against their agency budgets for violating a telework statute enacted four years ago.

The amendment to the Commerce Department's spending bill, passed by the House last week, would punish certain agencies that defy the Transportation Appropriations Act of 2001. That law requires that eligible federal employees have the option of telecommuting by October. To be eligible, employees must perform their work satisfactorily and be able to do their jobs remotely at least one day a week.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) sponsored the amendment. Other House lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), jumped on the teleworking issue, suggesting that more sweeping legislation could be in store if federal agencies fail to increase the number of employees who telecommute.

When the transportation law was enacted in 2000, the portion that mandated teleworking was offered as a remedy for traffic congestion. But recent debates about telecommuting have expanded to include its usefulness as a homeland security measure. The General Services Administration and the Homeland Security Department are developing continuity of operations plans that stress telework options for employees in the event of a disaster.

Last week, Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) added to the discussion by introducing a separate bill, the Continuity of Operations Demonstration Project Act. It would authorize a pilot project to test the effectiveness of telecommuting.

Wolf's amendment, by contast, would apply only to the federal judiciary, the Commerce, Justice and State departments, the Small Business Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition to the $5 million penalty for violating the law, it would also require agencies to designate a telework coordinator to oversee the programs and submit quarterly reports to appropriators.

A recent Office of Personnel Management report states that only 6 percent of federal employees work from home or from a telework center at least once a week. The report covers 74 agencies with more than 1.7 million employees.

Lawmakers' impatience with the reluctance of government agencies to use their full teleworking capacities may be reaching the boiling point. Tom Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has said he is prepared to introduce governmentwide legislation aimed at increasing the number of teleworkers. In addition, Rep. Edward Schrock (R-Va.) floated the idea of a governmentwide definition of eligibility to dispel confusion about who qualifies to work from a remote location.

Tom Davis' spokesman, David Marin, said the message to federal agencies is: "Act fast or Congress will. It's important to remember that some agencies are doing better than others, so we would, of course, have to pick the right [appropriations] bills."

"No final decision has been made as to whether [Tom Davis will] actually seek to amend any of the bills, but he wanted to let agencies know that it's a stick he's willing to yield," Marin said. Draft legislation is ready to go if, needed, he added.

OPM Director Kay Coles James said creating a governmentwide eligibility standard is not an answer to the problem because of the diverse nature of agencies.

As a case in point, most Interior Department employees work in the field. The nation's parks and wildlife refuges inspire employees, said Scott Cameron, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for performance and management. "You might have a hard time dragging them out of the marsh," he said. "They want to be out there in the national parks."

By October, Interior officials expect to complete a telework policy tailored to their needs.

James also advised against legislating greater agency participation in telecommuting programs.

But even proposed legislative actions may have to wait. With an already crowded agenda and the August recess looming, lawmakers do not expect to act until next year. Danny Davis said he is primarily focused on telework to keep the government operating during emergencies.

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TELEWORKING: Good for homeland security?

As part of the Continuity of Operations Demonstration Project Act, proposed by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), two or more agencies would test teleworking for 30 days to evaluate whether it could effectively keep the government running in the event of an emergency. Other features of the bill include:

An emphasis on continuity of operations and greater workplace flexibility for federal employees.

No new resources for teleworking because the pilot would take place under existing policies and funding.

A study to determine what technologies, changes in work processes or other measures are needed to promote teleworking.

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