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Telework legislation is good news for budgets and workers

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 7:02 PM

At last.

After tons of paper, vats of ink and who knows how many meetings and conferences on a seemingly simple subject, Congress has given final approval to legislation promoting telework for federal employees.

Some employees already work away from their offices, though less than 10 percent. The bill, passed by the House on Thursday in a 254 to 152 vote, encourages others to do so in a structured way.

As a result, Uncle Sam should be able to save money, increase productivity and have an easier time recruiting and retaining good folks. Mother Nature gave teleworking a big hug when she heavily blanketed the nation's capital with snow last winter, forcing federal offices to close for days.

Some employees did telecommute. Because they did, Office of Personnel Management estimates, the government lost about $30 million less a day than what it would have had no one in the region worked.

Several Republicans spoke against the bill, however, because the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it would cost that same amount, a pittance in Uncle Sam's pockets, over five years in administrative charges, for everyday things such as preparing regulations and providing guidance to managers.

Saving more than $30 million on each snow day compared with spending $30 million over five years should be a no-brainer. The snow days also demonstrated the need for government to have an effective continuance-of-operations program in case of emergencies. Telework would be a key part of any such program.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican and soon to be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led the charge against the bill, urging his colleagues to vote against a "new bureaucratic mandate within the federal regime."

Not all Republicans did so. Fourteen Republicans supported the measure, including Virginia Reps. Robert J. Wittman and Frank R. Wolf, who has pushed telework for 18 years. They even took to the floor to rebut their party's arguments. Sponsors of the legislation included Democratic Reps. John P. Sarbanes of Maryland and Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia.

Issa indicated that Republicans will attempt to amend it when they take over the House next year, but his office would not give specifics.

Less office space

Despite Republican fears about bigger government, experience indicates that telework can lead to smaller government, at least in square feet.

"The Patent and Trademark office, which has been an agency leader in telework efforts, reports that it was able to consolidate nearly 50,000 square feet of space, thereby avoiding $1.5 million in rent per year through greater use of telework," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), current chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "Additionally, the agency has avoided securing $11 million in additional office space as a direct result of the agency's telework hoteling programs."

Already passed by the Senate, the bill goes to the White House for the signature of President Obama, whose administration has strongly supported telecommuting. The measure establishes a policy framework and a set of procedures essentially creating the assumption that telework is permitted, rather than something workers must fight to get.

Within 180 days of enactment, agencies must determine which employees are eligible for telework and "notify all employees of the agency of their eligibility to telework." This doesn't mean that all employees are eligible, nor that federal offices will empty out as workers set up laptops in front of televisions. Far from it.

The bill requires employees to complete telework training programs before entering into a written agreement regarding their remote work with their agencies. Those who do telework and those who don't would be treated equally under the legislation when it comes to performance evaluations, promotions, rewards, discipline and other matters involving managerial discretion.

Each agency would appoint a telework managing officer. The legislation assures the status of the officer by saying that person "shall be a senior official of the agency who has direct access to the head of the agency."

Yet, the impact of telework managing officers could be limited because the measure allows them to split their telework time with unrelated responsibilities.

Not for everyone

Although the legislation moves telework from a passive to an affirmative policy, as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) noted on the House floor, the measure prohibits some from working at home.

The bill says a federal worker may not be eligible to telework if "the employee has been officially disciplined for being absent without permission for more than 5 days in any calendar year" or if the employee has been officially disciplined "for viewing, downloading, or exchanging pornography, including child pornography, on a Federal Government computer or while performing official Federal Government duties."

And, of course, some work - that of most law enforcement officers, park rangers and air traffic controllers, to name of few - can't be done at home.

The legislation addresses the issue of maintaining the security of sensitive information when workers are not in the office. The Office of Management and Budget is tasked with establishing guidelines "to ensure . . . security protections for information and information systems used while teleworking." Among other things, that includes safeguards for personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers.

Said Wolf: "I think this is a good bill for the country."

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