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A Growing Number of Employees Are Staying Away From the Office

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By Stephen Barr
Monday, December 12, 2005

Ah, the joys of telecommuting -- especially on a snow and slush day like Friday.

According to the latest count, 140,694 federal employees worked at home or at a telework center last year. Through the magic of computers and telephone lines, these lucky souls avoid snarled traffic, jammed subway trains and lousy weather.

The tally of federal telecommuters, sent to Congress last week by the Office of Personnel Management, showed an increase from 2003, when 102,921 government employees were counted as working away from the office at least one day a week.

As federal agencies update plans to ensure that essential operations are not lost during emergencies, "telework must continue to be an integral part of agencies' business practices," Linda M. Springer , the OPM director, said in a preface to the report.

The tally was based on survey responses from 82 federal agencies with more than 1.8 million employees. Only 7.7 percent of that workforce is telecommuters, but the 140,694 employees represented 18.6 percent of the workforce deemed eligible to work from home or a telework center near their homes, the report showed.

The majority of the agencies said they had adopted policies to determine which employees could qualify for telecommuting. Forty-three agencies specified occupations that were eligible for telecommuting; 43 agencies excluded employees with past disciplinary problems from telecommuting; and 52 agencies permitted employees with health problems to telecommute, for example.

Most agencies -- 53 -- said they allowed employees to telecommute and participate in an alternative work schedule, such as longer office hours during certain days of a pay period in exchange for Friday as a day off.

Agencies also appeared to be more flexible in helping their employees work from home. Twenty agencies purchased equipment for their telecommuters, and 31 agencies said they provide surplus equipment to telecommuters.

Some agencies reported substantial numbers of employees who worked away from their office, data collected for the report showed. For example, the Defense Department reported 21,381 teleworkers; the Treasury Department had 29,362; the Justice Department, 18,604; and the Health and Human Services Department, 11,331.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who views telecommuting programs as an effective method for cutting traffic congestion in the Washington area, has used his chairmanship of a House Appropriations subcommittee to put pressure on agencies to expand telework opportunities.

Wolf has focused on agencies under his subcommittee's jurisdiction, such as the departments of Commerce, State and Justice. The departments told OPM that they had increased the percentage of employees allowed to telecommute. Justice reported a telework surge, going from 4.4 percent of eligible employees telecommuting in 2003 to 40.3 percent last year.

Across government, OPM said, half of the telecommuters could be considered "core teleworkers" because they routinely worked away from the office one or more days per week. Almost all of the rest participated on a "situational basis," such as workers who stayed at home to focus on a writing or research project.

By most accounts, the government has moved slowly on telecommuting because of managerial resistance.

According to the 2004 survey, agencies said office staffing was "the most prevalent barrier to the successful implementation of telework." Previous reports have indicated that managers fear that they will not be able to handle sudden increases in workload or cover their hours of operation if they participate in telecommuting programs.

Agencies also said the nature of their work and data security concerns made it difficult for them to support telework.

Still, 35 agencies reported that they have incorporated telecommuting as part of their "continuity of operations" planning in the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other major disruption. An additional 37 agencies indicated that they are considering including telework in their emergency planning.

Retirements

James J. Byrnes Jr. , chief of facilities management for the Veterans Benefits Administration, retired Dec. 2 after 33 1/2 years of federal service.

Sandra A. Coleman , psychology technician at the Office of Personnel Management, will retire Jan. 3 after 30 years of federal service.

E-mail:barrs@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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