Storm ramps up federal teleworking

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 29, 2012

Sandy is sitting on the federal government like a huge wet and windy blanket, a killjoy if ever there was one.

Yet, despite the storm that has closed government offices along the East Coast, stopped transit systems and forced residents to hunker down in their homes, some work of the government continues to get done. A good chunk of federal employees are working while their colleagues have the day off Tuesday, for the second straight day.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Emergency personnel, of course, work no matter what. Increasingly, others, who are not considered emergency personnel, are in a position to work from home. Offices closed not just in Washington, but also in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

“The first and most important issue is making sure we can protect the safety of our employees,” said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

The OPM estimated that about one-third of almost 300,000 federal employees, including emergency staff, in the D.C. area telework when government buildings close because of weather.

But according to the OPM’s latest annual “Status of Telework in the Federal Government” report to Congress, issued in June, less than 8 percent of federal employees telework regularly.

If so many employees can telework when storms close D.C. offices, why don’t more telework on a regular basis?

The OPM report cites “management resistance” as the primary barrier to teleworking, closely followed by technology. But if technology is such an important barrier, how can such a significant percentage of federal workers in the D.C. area telework during storms?

“It is very telling that the federal government appears to have the capacity and capability to go from 8 percent of employees teleworking to approximately 33 percent when the continuity-of-operations plan is put in place,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a sponsor of the Telework Enhancement Act, which was designed to facilitate telework in the federal government. “This indicates that one of the major barriers to more robust teleworking by a significant segment of federal employees is management related and not due to technology constraints. We still have a mindset among some federal managers that ‘if I can’t see you, you must not be working.’ ”

The OPM is “working closely with agencies to break down these barriers and improve telework opportunities in the federal government,” said Thomas Richards, an OPM spokesman.

Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, an organization that promotes teleworking, said “many positions that would not be eligible for regular telework would be eligible to telework during a natural disaster. Just like we are seeing with Hurricane Sandy, maintaining operations is absolutely critical — and telework can have a major impact.

“That being said, this presents a great opportunity for employees to have that conversation for more regular telework,” she added. “Some middle managers are still waiting to see if telework is a storm that will pass or will it be integrated into standard operating procedures.”

Teleworking was a central component of Berry’s decision to close offices in the metropolitan D.C. area because of Hurricane Sandy. The office closing notices issued by the agency said that excused absences allowed for non-emergency employees did not apply to those “required to telework.”

Teleworkers don’t get administrative leave on a bad weather day. If they don’t want to work, they have to take a vacation day.

“Telework-ready employees who are scheduled to perform telework on the day of the announcement or who are required to perform unscheduled telework on a day when federal offices are closed to the public must telework the entire workday or request leave, or a combination of both,” according to the OPM announcement.

Berry said he received hour-by-hour weather reports before deciding to close government offices. At one point Saturday, he considered closing for a half day on Monday.

But with predictions for dangerously high winds Monday afternoon and the possibility that Metro would not operate (the transit agency said it would not operate shortly after OPM announced its decision to close), Berry said his decision to close D.C. area offices was an easy one.

“I didn’t want to risk a situation where you’d have to bring people in and then have to shelter in place,” he said. But as the weather predictions got worse, the thought “of trying to get a half a day was . . . off the table in terms of public safety.”

Keeping the government running also is a consideration. “We have a responsibility to the taxpayer to keep the government open as much as we possibly can,” Berry said.

But that doesn’t trump safety.

The decision to stay open or close in other cities is made by local Federal Executive Boards, which coordinate the activities of federal agencies.

How much does it cost the taxpayer when government offices close?

“There is no good way for us to calculate with any accuracy the cost of closing federal government buildings,” Richards said. “New technologies allow federal employees to work from home and some will find ways to make up their work at no cost to the federal government.”

Safety also includes securing all construction sites, covering manholes and placing sandbags in certain areas, such as the Federal Triangle, according to the General Services Administration. As of mid-afternoon Monday, the GSA reported no damage to federal facilities.

“We have personnel monitoring buildings and reporting continually on status and impacts throughout the storm,” said GSA spokesman Dan Cruz.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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