Senate approves teleworking bill

Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staf Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 2:12 AM

Teleworking for federal employees took a major step forward with legislation approved by the Senate on Wednesday night.

Under the legislation, agencies would develop policies allowing all employees to work remotely unless their positions are specifically excluded. Telework would become part of an agency's contingency plans for situations, such as the snowstorms that closed federal facilities in Washington last winter, when work could not be done in regular offices. Each agency also would create the post of telework managing officer to oversee its teleworking program. The legislation would create telework travel test programs, including one for the Patent and Trademark Office.

"I am pleased the Senate passed the compromise telework bill, which I believe contains the best of the House and Senate bills," said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), a sponsor of the legislation. "It will improve the lives of federal workers by expanding telework opportunities, and it will help agencies attract and retain top talent. This bill will help keep critical government functions running in the event of snowstorms or other emergencies."

But a provision that gave teeth to an earlier version was not included in the bill passed by the Senate. That provision would have allowed employees to telework 20 percent of the time in each two-week period.

The Obama administration and employee organizations have pushed for greater teleworking opportunities for employees. The inability or unwillingness of supervisors to manage staff members they can't see has long been cited as a major reason so few federal employees now telework on a regular basis. Less than 10 percent of federal employees eligible to telework did so in 2008, according to the latest "Status of Telework in the Federal Government"report to Congress by the Office of Personnel Management.

The bill attempts to address institutional reluctance through training.

"Employing telework on a government-wide scale constitutes a significant culture shift in the federal workforce, one that requires an increased investment in managerial training to maintain employee engagement, monitor performance and promote cooperation when face-to-face communication is restricted," said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association.

Telework now returns to the House, which passed a different version of the legislation in July.

Scrutiny of insurance

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wants the Government Accountability Office to examine the operation of the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) program.

In a letter to the GAO, Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns (D-N.Y.) questioned the "retained asset accounts" method the program uses to disburse money due a beneficiary. The program is administered by MetLife insurance company and overseen by the Office of Personnel Management.

John Calagna, a MetLife vice president, said the company believes the accounts, which it calls Total Control Accounts (TCA) "are equal to or more favorable than receiving a check in virtually every scenario. Since TCAs are fully liquid on-demand accounts, TCA account holders have immediate access to the full amount of their life insurance benefits."

These accounts are basically low-interest bank accounts, but they are not insured by the federal government, as regular bank accounts are, though they are protected by state programs, according to Calagna. Instead of giving lump sum payments directly to the beneficiaries, the money is held in an account until the beneficiary withdraws it. The deposits earn interest, but MetLife keeps a far greater portion of that interest than that paid to the beneficiaries, according to the committee.

"It appears that MetLife is paying itself a much higher interest rate on the money in these accounts than the interest they pay to the account holder. To many people that does not seem fair," Towns said in a press statement. "Furthermore, I am concerned that some beneficiaries may not fully understand their right to obtain immediate, lump-sum payment of their benefits."

About half of the accounts earn 3 percent interest and 80 percent earn 1.5 percent or better, according to Calagna.

Against bureaucrat-ese

Uncle Sam can make things so convoluted that Congress this week approved legislation requiring him to be plain spoken.

The legislation directs agencies to train employees on how to write plainly and appoint a plain-writing official to oversee implementation of the measure.

Plain writing is defined as "writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience." That's going to require a huge change in practice for many agencies.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), sponsor of the legislation, said "writing government documents in plain language will increase government accountability and will save Americans time and money. Plain, straightforward language makes it easy for taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing and what services it is offering."

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