Union criticizes OPM's telework guidelines

NTEU says new pandemic telework rules lack employee negotiation, equipment supply rights

Telework Guidance

The telework guidelines released last week by the Office of Personnel Management fail to address several issues essential to government telework initiatives, according to one of the major federal employee unions.

The guidelines, issued Aug. 3, are intended to help agencies effectively use telework. The document provides detailed information on everything from establishing a telework policy to understanding the safety requirements that apply to teleworkers. It also contains separate sections for managers and employees that serve as step-by-step guides to handling telework.

But in a statement released last week, officials at the National Treasury Employees Union said the document is missing some essential elements.

For instance, it does not stress the need for an agency to negotiate with employees when developing a telework policy, said NTEU President Colleen Kelley. “The more employee input at the beginning, the more employee enthusiasm for the program and the more the agency and taxpayers will benefit,” she said.

Once that telework policy is in place, it will not do much good if employees do not have the technical resources they need to take advantage of it, Kelley said. Agencies, she added, should pay for some or all high-speed Internet costs for telework employees. Agencies also must establish secure networks and remote access to appropriate databases.

OPM “needs to stress to every federal agency the importance of providing teleworking employees with the tools they need to perform their jobs,” Kelley said.

OPM agreed with Kelley’s comments about the importance of employee negotiation when establishing a telework program and said their guidelines address the issue.

“Aside from providing employees and managers with a broad synopsis on telework guidelines and benefits in general, our recently released telework guide recognizes that it is a negotiable matter and reminds agencies and employees that their union agreement may have specific provisions on telework,” said Nancy Kichak, associate director of OPM’s Strategic Human Resources Policy Division, via e-mail.

However, Kichak also said that equipment standards can vary from agency to agency. “Not all telework requires a substantial degree of technology,” she said.

The new telework rules are the third and final installment of OPM’s guidance for agencies to use in case of an influenza pandemic. They include updated online courses and a fact sheet about how telework applies to emergency situations.

Analysts generally side with OPM on this issue. Telework information technology expert Bernie Skoch, executive vice president of IT analysis firm Suss Consulting, had mostly praise for the guidelines. Although he agreed that proper equipment is important for teleworkers, he said he didn’t believe it was OPM’s responsibility to establish the requirements.

“Clearly it’s important that the people have the tools they need to work off-site,” Skoch said. “It’s fair enough for the NTEU to say that, but it’s my sense that OPM hit the right mark. I don’t think they needed to get down to the equipment focus issue.”

Advocacy groups shared a similar view of NTEU’s issues. Steve O’Keeffe, chief executive officer of Telework Exchange, agreed that OPM may not be required to define the role of telework in the collective bargaining process.

“It does seem logical to incorporate telework as a part of the collective bargaining process, so there needs to be some provisions for those things, but I don’t think they necessarily need to be defined by OPM,” he said.

The Telework Exchange holds “visionary meetings” every six weeks with agencies and government groups to discuss telework policy and implementation. NTEU recently started attending those meetings to provide union and employee input, O’Keeffe said.


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Employees question fairness
of paying for bandwidth costs
The National Treasury Employees Union raised some concerns about the Office of Personnel Management’s new telework guidelines, which resemble concerns that caused a rift at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Federal Services Impasses Panel decided July 18 to reject the union’s efforts to get ATF to pay half of the high-speed Internet costs for employees who telework from home. Union officials argued that potential savings from lower office-leasing costs could offset the costs for broadband service. They also said the annual cost of bandwidth for the agency would be a “not an unreasonable figure” of $225,000.

But ATF said its telework employees would “spend approximately 70 percent of their time in the field” and would not make use of an Internet connection during many of their work hours.

The union’s relationship with ATF regarding telework has been contentious in recent months. In May, the two had conflicting views about establishing a telework program. In a marathon 12-hour conference with the impasses panel, the union and the agency hammered out a deal to allow most of ATF’s 750 employees to telework full time.

ATF’s original plan was to allow only nine employees to telework.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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