By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
A bill that would permit many federal employees to telecommute at least two days every two weeks was approved by the House yesterday on a voice vote.
Under the bill, federal agencies would be required to create and implement policies to enable eligible employees to work from home or away from their regular office as long as telecommuting did not hamper their performance or interfere with agency operations.
Telework advocates and union officials have been pushing for expanded telecommuting programs in the government for two years, and the House action enhances the chances of Congress sending a bill to the president this year.
Similar legislation has been approved by a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, but a committee report has not been released, a step needed before the bill can come to the Senate floor. There are some differences between the House and Senate bills that will have to be resolved, but a compromise is likely because the concept of expanded telecommuting in the government has drawn substantial bipartisan support.
Reps. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.), Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Tom Davis (R-Va.) and others have repeatedly stressed that allowing more government employees to work from home would ease traffic congestion and cut air pollution in such areas as Washington.
"This is a win, win, win," Sarbanes said yesterday. The private sector is ahead of the government in offering at-home work options and the government needs to expand its telework programs to remain competitive in hiring, he said.
Only 6 percent of the federal workforce participated in a telework program in 2006, according to a House report on the bill.
By most accounts, many federal managers are wary of telework because of concerns that communication among employees could be more difficult and that offices might have trouble turning around a sudden surge in work.
But Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said yesterday that "it is simply old-fashioned and outdated to think that employees cannot and will not be productive if they are at a work site other than their office."
Supporters of the House bill pointed to the Patent and Trademark Office and the Defense Information Systems Agency as agencies that encourage telecommuting and have suffered no decline in productivity.
Under the House bill, eligible employees would be permitted to telecommute at least 20 percent of the hours they worked in every two workweeks. That formula allows employees on alternative work schedules and those with non-standard hours to also be considered for telecommuting.
Not every federal employee will be able to qualify, however. Agencies would be able to deny telework to employees who handle classified information, have daily face-to-face contact with the public or who must use certain equipment to perform their jobs, according to a House report on the bill.