Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this report incorrectly spelled the last name of Cindy Auten of the Telework Exchange. A corrected version of the text follows.

Bill to expand federal workers' telecommuting options falls short in House

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

Legislation that would give federal workers the option to work from home ran into a significant roadblock Thursday, failing to get the two-thirds majority in the House that would have expanded telework options across the government.

The bill drew 268 votes of support in the House but fell nine short of passage because it was brought up under special fast-track rules. It could return to the floor later in the legislative calendar, but that is not assured.

Similar legislation awaits a vote in the Senate.

Although slightly different, the measures essentially require federal agencies to appoint telework managing officers to oversee new policies developed by each agency and the Office of Personnel Management. Employees could telework only if doing so would not affect agency operations. The bills prohibit workers who handle secure or classified materials or information or who perform tasks that cannot be performed remotely from teleworking.

About 61 percent of federal workers are eligible to telework, but only 5 percent do so regularly, according to the OPM. The agency's director, John M. Berry, has devoted most of his tenure to convincing lawmakers and other skeptics that telework options are necessary to help retain and recruit potential federal hires.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the House bill would cost $30 million, which Republicans deemed too expensive.

The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), argued that it would save taxpayer dollars in the long term, noting that federal employees who worked from home during this year's snowstorms saved the government about $30 million by maintaining operations.

"This bill would be a win for the taxpayer," Sarbanes said in a statement. "It would also bolster the federal workforce, improve traffic in the D.C. area, and reduce carbon emissions -- all in one fell swoop."

Sarbanes and others have used the snowstorms, subsequent federal snow days and President Obama's recent nuclear security summit as examples of how teleworking could help maintain government operations when downtown Washington is locked down.

Cindy Auten of the Telework Exchange, a group pushing for greater federal workplace flexibilities, said her organization will keep pushing for passage.

"We have to showcase not just what it means for federal workers, but we also have to do a good job of showing how agencies have progressed on telework and improved operations," Auten said.

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