Get a life: A summer balance

It's officially the dog days of summer. Congress is out of session, and elected officials are at work in home districts. Some executive-branch employees are on vacation at beaches or mountains, while others are hoarding vacation days in case they decide to retire at the end of the year.

Regardless of what you're doing this month, you should have noticed that three issues -- telework, Social Security reforms and emergency preparedness -- have dominated the federal workforce spotlight.

These issues are pertinent to many workers, such as retired federal employees. They must deal with a provision that eliminates some Social Security benefits for those who receive a government pension. And if you live in certain target areas, sometimes referred to as ground zero, you may not know about Occupant Emergency Plans, which agency officials were required to inform you about after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The plans are supposed to detail contingency plans in the event of an emergency.

Federal officials embraced teleworking in Boston last week during the Democratic National Convention, as they did when demonstrators came

to Washington, D.C., to protest at the International Monetary Fund during a meeting earlier this year. Office of Personnel Management officials instructed federal workers in Boston and New York City -- home to the Republican National Convention later this month -- to use teleworking, alternative work schedules, flex time and vacation time to reduce the number of federal employees working in or commuting through areas around the conventions.

Additionally, a congressional hearing was held last month to examine agencies' telework progress. By law, federal workers were supposed to begin teleworking en masse in 2001 and increase at a rate of 25 percent a year so that 100 percent of the federal workforce would be eligible to telework by next April. As most federal employees who are not teleworking know, that is not happening.

Even with laptop computers, broadband Internet service and Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerries readily available, OPM data shows that only 14 percent of employees who were eligible actually could telework in 2003. Of course, telecommuting is not an option for some federal workers. For example, many employees at the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can't telecommute because they work outdoors and summer is the height of the tourist and wildfire seasons.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who held the hearing, said telecommuting should be an option. "The bottom line is: Why do federal employees have to commute to and from the office each day to perform work that often could be done equally well, or even more efficiently, at a more convenient location?" he asked.

Davis said there is no governmentwide definition of who is eligible to telework, and only 34 of the 74 agencies where workers responded to a Government Accountability Office survey have procedures in place for managers to inform employees that they are eligible for telework.

Just as teleworking may be coming more into Congress' view, so are government retirement benefits, at least in theory. Davis' hearing included discussions about the Public Servant Retirement Protection (PSRP) Act, which would repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). Two Social Security provisions, the Government Pension Offset and WEP, affect about 7 million federal, state and local government employees.

With WEP, employees who contribute to a government pension system instead of Social Security for some jobs cannot receive benefits that are more generous than those of workers with equal earnings who paid Social Security taxes for all their jobs.

Finally, emergency preparedness got a boost last week during an OPM forum to help agency officials focus on and respond to issues that surfaced in GAO's Safety and Security of Federal Workplaces survey. The survey results indicate a need for:

Improving emergency drills such as assessing whether employees need to evacuate or should stay in their offices.

Using telework for employees during an emergency.

Since October 2003, OPM officials have conducted six forums in Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston to address agencies' requirements if the government were to close during an emergency. A total of 595 individuals from 130 agencies and subagencies have attended those forums. Whether they have shared what they learned with the thousands of other government workers remains a question.

Working the plan

Careful planning can work, or at least it worked last week in Boston.

Eleven months of planning and new communication approaches eased the disruption for 2,000 federal employees in Boston's "hard security zone" during the Democratic National Convention last week, organizers said.

Adjacent to Boston's Convention and Exhibition Center, the Thomas P. O'Neill Building is home to 15 federal agencies that provide public services, such as Social Security information, passports, food and nutrition services, and is home to the Small Business Administration and the federal bankruptcy court.

Officials decided early last month to close the building to everyone except credentialed federal employees. They made alternative plans and publicized other locations where citizens could come for their services. The federal bankruptcy court, for example, set up shop in another nearby court building. All other federal buildings were open in Boston, said Kim Ainsworth, executive director of the Greater Boston Federal Executive Board.

"It's been a pretty good day -- a positive experience," Ainsworth said July 26.

Officials built a hot line message system to give important information to employees via their office, home or wireless phones. In addition, Federal Protective Service officials set up a secure Web portal that enabled senior executives to chat and exchange information.

Federal employees could choose to work in their offices next to the convention center, telework, reroute calls and visits to other agency locations, or take the week off for vacation.

Seeking comments

All of these items -- telework, retirement benefits, emergency plans -- have a common theme. They represent stress points on federal work life today. In my columns during the next several months, I will look at these areas and how some people have found ways to "get a life."

Your comments and feedback will help. What do you do to relieve the stress of commuting? Who has the longest commute? What are your commuting tricks and shortcuts? Does anyone commute by unusual means -- say, by boat or plane? Have you had any experiences with road rage -- yours or others? Why do you drive to an office instead of working from home? If you telecommute, what makes that work well for you? How have you set up your office at home? How do you avoid distractions? What are the pros and cons of teleworking?

If you work in Washington, D.C., or another major city with thousands of federal employees, do you ever think about it as ground zero? Has your agency told you what to do if something happens? Do you have your own plan?

During the next few months, other topics will include: what people are doing to relieve long commutes and stressful days; what experts advise and others suggest for you to get ahead in the workplace and to get along with troublesome bosses and office mates; what feds do about day care, elder care and even pet care; changes in benefits, both good and bad; and what's on the horizon. Tell me what you'd like these columns to address, and we'll examine those issues, too. Send e-mail messages to judywelles@fcw.com and together we'll get a life!

Welles is a retired fed who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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