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Working From Home a Work in Progress

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The government updates numbers all the time, but here's a tally worth mulling.

For the first time, the government has sorted out how many federal employees are regular telecommuters -- 119, 248.

That's 6.6 percent of the federal workforce, according to a report recently sent to Congress by the Office of Personnel Management.

Congress has supported the idea of allowing government employees to work from home to ease rush-hour congestion and give agencies a way of continuing basic operations in the event of a catastrophe, such as pandemic flu.

This year's run-up in gasoline prices has prompted a new round of interest in at-home work programs, which were outlined at a Senate subcommittee hearing last week. Telecommuting two days a week would save the average full-time federal employee about $55 per month, according to testimony by the Telework Exchange, a group that has urged the government to expand telecommuting options for government employees.

The OPM's new report to Congress, sent June 15, shows that a number of agencies have made progress in setting up telecommuting programs. But the report stressed that "there is still work to be done to fully integrate telework into the culture and business practices of some Federal agencies."

Of the 119,248 employees counted as telecommuters in 2005, 25 percent worked from home at least three days a week, 35 percent telecommuted one or two days a week, and the rest telecommuted at least once a month, the OPM said.

Previously, the OPM had permitted federal agencies to include in their tallies any employees who had telecommuted at any time during the year, no matter how infrequently. That more expansive definition had produced a tally of 140,694 telecommuters in 2004.

For the new report, the OPM collected information from 78 agencies in 2005.

The government's largest agency, the Defense Department, reported that it had 34,007 telecommuters in 2005. Of those, 3,490 telecommuted at least three days a week and 3,945 telecommuted one or two days a week, with the rest teleworking less but at least once a month.

Other agencies with large numbers of telecommuters included Commerce, Interior and Treasury, the report showed.

The OPM said most telecommuters held jobs in the higher pay grades, mostly General Schedule 12 through 14.

About 30 percent of federal employees have been deemed ineligible to participate in telework programs because their jobs require them to be in the office (such as doctors and clerical staff) or at a certain place (such as forest rangers). Other employees are not eligible because they handle sensitive or classified information.

Agencies told the OPM that they had denied telecommuting privileges to 2,458 employees in 2005 because of poor job performance ratings.

In addition to office staffing requirements, agencies said growth in telecommuting would be slowed by "organizational culture," management resistance and computer security issues.

Only 27 agencies said they had made plans to use telecommuting as an option for dealing with an emergency, suggesting that many agencies are still considering how best to use at-home workers to keep their operations going if offices have to be closed. The White House has urged agencies to make telework a part of their planning for a possible flu epidemic.

Some data in the report suggested that agencies may not be prepared to justify their telecommuting programs, however. A majority of the agencies in the survey -- 44 -- said they did not track or did not know what they gained by allowing employees to work from home.

But several agencies said they found that telework improved recruitment, productivity and morale. Several agencies said telecommuting was holding down transportation and real estate costs.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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