Congress touts telework

New legislation has program advocates optimistic about telework's momentum

Progress on House and Senate legislation that would significantly expand federal telework initiatives has given telecommuting advocates hope that Congress will vote on a bill soon.

For years, telework advocates have urged federal managers to expand their telecommuting programs, citing environmental benefits such as reduced vehicle emissions and better emergency preparedness. A law enacted in 2000 requires every executive branch agency to establish a telework policy that allows the greatest number of employees to participate without reducing performance. But participation has been disappointing to many lawmakers and other observers.

“I think the problem has been in some agencies the midlevel managers have taken the attitude — and I understand — that if you can’t see the person, they must not be working,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said on Federal News Radio Aug. 9. But studies show that teleworkers often are more productive because they waste less time commuting and are more satisfied, he said.

Wolf, who is considered to be Capitol Hill’s pre-eminent telework advocate, is co-sponsor of a bill that the House approved Aug. 4 as an amendment to an energy-efficiency bill. The measure, introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), would require agencies to appoint a full-time, senior-level employee as a telework managing officer to coordinate telework activities. Agencies would also face annual telework program reviews by the Government Accountability Office and would have to offer employees telework training.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) introduced similar Senate legislation in March that covers judicial and legislative employees, in addition to executive branch workers. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee shelved the bill, but policy experts said it would likely re-emerge when Congress returns.

Some policy experts say high gas prices and a green-friendly Democratic-controlled Congress make telework legislation an appealing sell as part of an energy-efficiency policy. However, by attaching telework legislation as an amendment to a controversial House energy-efficiency bill, telework advocates could land in the middle of a fight between congressional Democrats, Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration about several other provisions included in the energy legislation.

Nevertheless, some telework proponents say there is enough bipartisan support for expanding the federal telework program that it should make its way into whatever compromise is reached in the fall.

“My expectations are that some energy bill will pass, and this will be in it,” Wolf said.

Some telework advocates say the new legislative measures represent a significant step forward because they address telework training. Current policies do not force agencies to formulate a comprehensive policy about who can and cannot telework. Current rules also do not require agencies to have a full-time employee to coordinate telework.

Stephen O’Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, a telework advocacy group, said September could be a big month for telework gains.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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