Lawmakers push telework as overall participation drops

The latest legislation aimed at boosting federal telecommuting is expected to be marked up by a House committee March 13 as lawmakers in both houses of Congress continue to press for legislation that would more clearly define the government’s teleworking program. A similar proposal has been working its way through the Senate since last year.

Specifically, the House bill, introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) in November, would require agencies to allow authorized employees to telework at least 20 percent of the time in a two-week period. Lawmakers in both houses have been pushing bills that would require each agency to appoint a telework managing officer and the comptroller general to submit an annual report to Congress rating agencies on their telework practices.

Davis’ bill was sent to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee after gaining approval in the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia subcommittee last month. It would require the General Services Administration, in consultation with the Office of Personnel Management, to be responsible for helping implement a telework policy by providing advice, assistance and guidance to agencies.

Proponents say expanding federal telework will boost participation, which will improve agencies’ continuity-of-operations planning, decrease pollution and congestion, help in recruiting, save money, and improve employees’ way of life. For example, a joint study released today by the Telework Exchange, a for-profit group that promotes federal telework, and the National Science Foundation showed that each NSF teleworker saves on average 62 hours of commuting time, $1,201 in commuting costs and 1,751 pounds of emissions annually.

But according to the most recent survey of federal agencies by OPM, telework numbers are down, and that trend may tell policy-makers more about the challenges they face.

About 10,000 fewer federal employees telecommuted at least one day per month in 2006 than they did in 2005 — a decrease that highlights the challenges federal telework programs face, according to OPM’s latest report to Congress on teleworking, which was released in December.

In total, 110,592 federal employees worked from an alternative site at least once per month in 2006 compared to 119,248 in 2005 — an overall decrease of about 0.5 percent of the federal workforce. The number of teleworkers who did so frequently fell along with the percentage who did so at least three days a week, falling from 25 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2006.

This was the second year that OPM only counted teleworkers who worked off-site a minimum of once per month, making comparisons between 2005 and 2006 valid. The report notes that those decreases provide insight into the challenges of telework program implementation.

OPM said that 49 of the 80 agencies whose data was included showed increases in their total telework numbers. However, participation at several large agencies fell sharply, bringing down the overall numbers. For example, between 2005 and 2006, the Commerce Department lost about 2,000 teleworkers, the Interior Department lost 85 percent of its teleworkers, and the Treasury Department lost 63 percent of its teleworkers.

Commerce and Treasury cited problems in their ability to track employees who telework, which could have resulted in some teleworkers not being reported, OPM said.

“Both of these examples illustrate the fact that without a uniform, automated, agency- or governmentwide tracking system, small issues can have large effects on the annual telework report,” the report stated. “The data in this report may also not accurately reflect the full picture of telework, since we know from these examples that not all teleworkers get counted.”

However, perhaps most noteworthy for agencies was Interior’s decline, which the department attributed to security concerns because several components had cut teleworking programs for that reason.

“Although Interior is featured here, due to their size and the impact security has had on their overall numbers, the general issue of security has the potential to continue to have a negative impact in future years for other agencies as well,” the report states.

OPM also said that the total number of employees deemed ineligible for telework in 2006 was 554,761, a 14 percent jump since 2005.

The bill working its way through the House would also require the head of each agency to ensure that, to the maximum extent practicable, teleworking is incorporated into agencies' continuity of operations plans.

OPM did note a 7 percent increase from 2005 to 42 percent of the agencies that were integrating telework into their continuity-of-operations planning for pandemic flu and other emergencies.

The OPM report also highlights telework successes in several agencies. iThe Labor Department saw its number of teleworkers increase by 58 percent, the number of OPM employees telecommuting three or more times per week more than quadrupled, and the International Trade Commission now has almost 75 percent of its employees teleworking.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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