Flu Crisis Underscores Need For Updated Telework Policies

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Uncle Sam has never been accused of having a perfect record for things such as vision and forward planning. Remember Hurricane Katrina?

But it turns out he was particularly prescient three years ago, when the Office of Personnel Management issued a guide called "Human Capital Planning for Pandemic Influenza."

"Although the timing cannot be predicted," the 2006 report said, "history and science suggest that we will face one or more pandemics in this century."

We're not in the middle of a pandemic, yet, but the Department of Health and Human Services has declared a national public health emergency because of the swine flu outbreak. It "has significant potential to affect national security," HHS said Sunday.

And who is central to national security? Federal employees.

"People accomplish the mission of Federal agencies, and a potential pandemic influenza outbreak may compromise the ability of Federal agencies to accomplish their mission," says the guide issued by Linda M. Springer, OPM director at the time.

Put simply, the mission of the federal government could suffer because federal workers might not go to the office if they, or people dependent on them, are ill.

Or as Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes telecommuting, asks: "If Uncle Sam calls in sick, who will tend to America in a time of an emergency?"

Part of the answer: federal workers at home. You don't always have to go to work to be at work. This swine flu outbreak reminds managers that they need to make sure their telework policies are up-to-date and well-tested.

OPM reported last year that 60 percent of federal agencies have integrated telework into "continuity of operations" emergency planning, although just 7.6 percent of those employees eligible to telecommute did so in 2007.

The key issue, Auten says, is whether agencies have tested telework plans.

John Berry, the new OPM director, will push for greater federal telework participation at a Capitol Hill briefing this morning, where he's expected to announce a government-wide telework policy.

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