House panel advances government telework bill

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; B03

A House committee approved a bill Wednesday that would probably lead to more federal employees getting permission to work from home, boosting an effort to encourage government telework that has gained momentum in recent months.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee, with bipartisan support and little debate, sent the measure to the House floor on a voice vote. It would require federal agencies to adopt policies allowing employees to work away from the office, with exceptions for those whose jobs cannot be performed elsewhere. Each agency would have to designate a telework managing officer to oversee the policies.

Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said the Telework Improvements Act of 2009 is "a good-government bill that will save taxpayers money while reducing energy consumption, air pollution and traffic congestion." He called it "a win-win-win situation."

A House vote will probably be scheduled by Memorial Day, and approval is "very likely," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a sponsor of the legislation. A similar bill passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year.

Federal employee unions and telework advocates hailed the vote. William Bransford, general counsel for the Senior Executives Association, said the group supports the legislation but wants to ensure that employees who telework don't develop "a sense of entitlement: 'I'm on my telework day, so don't call me at home because that's my castle, and I don't want to answer e-mails.' That has happened in some workplaces."

Steve O'Keeffe, executive director of the Alexandria-based Telework Exchange, called that concern "yesterday's way of looking at things."

"We're well beyond that," he said. "If someone is teleworking, you should call them as if they were in the office."

The federal government has promoted telework for years, but resistance from managers and the need to maintain computer security had often stymied it.

But the effort gained a major boost this winter with the record snowfalls in Washington. Officials recently told Congress that telework during the snowstorms had reduced the estimated cost of lost productivity from $100 million a day to $71 million. President Obama also highlighted the benefits of a flexible workplace at a White House forum last month.

The government encouraged nonessential personnel in downtown Washington to telework during this week's nuclear summit because of expected traffic snarls. Officials could not provide a number for how many workers went along, but Connolly noted what numerous drivers observed: Commuting times were shorter than usual.

"Clearly, it did work,'' he said.

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