House backs telecommuting

With funds to operate telecommuting centers around the Washington, D.C., area almost depleted, a provision in an appropriations bill could breathe new life into the program.

The fiscal 1999 appropriations bill (H.R. 4104) that would fund the Treasury Department, the U.S. Postal Service and other agencies would provide $2.1 million to the Interagency Telecommuting Pilot Project, which consists of a network of 17 telecommuting centers around Washington. Since the program's inception six years ago, Congress has given the General Services Administration about $16 million to pay for building and operating the centers involved in the telecommuting pilot, but those funds have been almost spent.

"We have pretty much used up all the appropriations for this project," said Jim Aden, the program coordinator at GSA. "We went to Congress and said, 'We need more money to keep this running one more year.' "

Aden said the bill should "inject new life into the pilot project. It will give some agencies that haven't used the centers an incentive to do so." The goals of the program are to give agencies an opportunity to try telecommuting and, as part of the larger nationwide telecommuting initiative, to relieve congestion on the highways, he added.

The centers, which are operated by GSA, allow private and government employees to work away from the office and closer to home one or more days a week. The agency that employs the employee who is telecommuting pays a low fee to GSA.

The bill also sets aside $50,000 a year for each agency to use the centers and allows GSA over the next two years to charge agencies 50 percent of the operating costs associated with using the centers. However, starting in October 2000, GSA will charge agencies 100 percent of the operating costs.

In addition, the current legislation makes it difficult for GSA to set prices because the agency is required to cover all the costs of building and operating the centers, which would increase prices significantly for users.

However, telecommuting has not attracted as many government employees as expected, mostly because managers are reluctant to permit employees to work outside the office, according to a General Accounting Office report released last year.

About 400 government telecommuters from 60 agencies use the 17 centers. The government has set a nationwide goal of 60,000 telecommuters by the end of this fiscal year, but that goal is unlikely to be met, according to observers. While 400 telecommuters appears low, Aden said some of the original centers are in use more than 80 percent of the time, and occupancy at the newer centers has been increasing.

Pete Smith, director of the Jefferson County TeleCenter in Ranson, W.Va., said the center serves government employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Naval Sea Systems Command, the Customs Service, the National Institutes of Health and others.

Motivating Telecommuting Programs

If the bill passes as is, it should motivate agencies to promote telecommuting, Smith said. "We've been at a little over 25 percent capacity since we opened 15 months ago," he said. "Because this bill directs agencies to spend $50,000 on telecommuting and establishes an affordable cost structure, it should allow the program to start growing again."

About 15 of the 30 workstations located in the TeleWorks Center in Frederick, Md., are rented by government employees, said Jackie Graff, the center's coordinator. Still, the concept is relatively new, and some managers are reluctant to embrace it, she said. "It can be profitable for agencies and for the people who run the centers," she said. "But until more managers let employees telecommute, they will stay away."

John O'Brien, the Flexiplace coordinator in the Environmental Protection Agency's Personnel Policy Division, said the agency has about 800 to 1,200 telecommuters agencywide at any one time. "Our program is very decentralized," he said. "We have given our managers a range of flexibilities, and some may use more telecommuting [than others]. It depends on the local situation."

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