Teleworkers Say It's A Gas-Gas-Gas Saver

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Even in her 47-miles-to-the-gallon Toyota Prius, budget analyst Christina Tolson said, she knew she was spending too much on gas driving to and from the District every day. She also knew that the 90 minutes each way she spent commuting from and to Charles County could be used for other things, such as hanging out with her 11-year-old son.

So, a month ago, Tolson made a change. At least one day a week, she goes to a telework center in Waldorf, cutting her 43-mile commute to 11 miles.

"It keeps me closer to home; I like that," said Tolson, who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I'd like to extend it to more days a week if I can."

As gas prices have exceeded $4 a gallon, Tolson is among a growing number of government and private-sector employees turning to telework centers, usually government-funded spaces that offer the perks of an office, including copy machines and water coolers, much closer to home.

In September, 253 people in the Washington region were registered to use the centers. That figure is now 415.

Although the spike in gas prices might be driving the increase, advocates for telecommuting say it's a matter of time before the trend catches fire. For a generation that came of age texting and instant-messaging, driving two hours to sit at a cubicle outside the boss's office doesn't make sense if there's an office down the street. And as that generation replaces an older set of supervisors, businesses will become more open to the idea of remote offices, teleworkers say.

"I think it's going to be just logical," said Joyce Twohig Larrick, director of the telework center at Bowie State University.

The centers -- 14 from Southern Maryland to West Virginia -- have been around for more than a decade, serving federal employees who do not want to commute but who lack the equipment or ability to work from home. The centers also offer something home-based employees might miss: co-workers.

In Waldorf, Tolson counts a training coordinator for the Department of Defense and a program assistant for the Food and Drug Administration among her colleagues. In Bowie, Larrick plays office mom to telecommuters, including a legal administrative specialist for the Office of Personnel Management and a manager for an information technology company.

"That's one thing that I have heard many people say, that they work better in a group kind of situation," Larrick said. "You'll find that many of the government workers will go to lunch together."

Private businesses or federal agencies rent space in the centers from the U.S. General Services Administration (usually for about $25 a day), and the GSA invests $3.5 million in them, said Sam Hunter, the agency's assistant commissioner of applied science.

Larrick said that since gas prices have been going up, she has seen a spike in the number of callers asking about telecommuting. Jill Wathen, director of three telework centers in Southern Maryland, said she received 50 percent more calls during the first quarter of the year than in the same period last year.

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