Tightened telework bill awaits House vote

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

House lawmakers are set to vote this week on a bill that would expand telework options across the federal government, as a new survey of federal workers has found that just 10 percent use the option.

Agencies would be required to appoint a telework managing officer with the goal of boosting overall participation. Employees could telework only if it didn't affect agency operations, and workers who handle secure or classified materials or information would have to work from their offices. Supporters say the bill could help the government avoid weather-related shutdowns, such as happened during February's blizzard, by giving workers the option of working from home or elsewhere. The Obama administration also considers telework an attractive federal benefit that could help woo job applicants.

The bill should pass this week through a special fast-track rule requiring a simple majority to approve it, Democratic aides said. It failed to pass in May amid Republican opposition to its $30 million price tag. Other opponents have cited potential breaches of agency computer security and worries among federal managers that workers might not field calls regarding agency business if they're not in the office.

Democratic supporters, led by Rep. John Sarbanes (Md.), have said the bill will save taxpayer dollars over the long term and cite OPM findings that federal workers who worked from home during February's snowstorms saved the government about $30 million by maintaining operations. Supporters also included the provisions prohibiting workers who handle secure or classified materials or information from teleworking to address the security concerns.

This week's vote comes as the Office of Personnel Management released statistics on telework participation from the new Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which polled more than 263,000 executive branch employees.

Ten percent said they telework at least once a week; 12 percent do so less frequently. Thirty-six percent -- including law enforcement officers, lab technicians and national park rangers -- said they can't telework because they must be physically present to do their job; 7 percent said they don't telework because of technical issues; 23 percent said they don't telework because they're not allowed to; and 12 percent said they choose not to.

The results mean 64 percent of federal workers could work remotely if given the opportunity.

"Hopefully, those numbers will continue to climb so we can continue to push employees and managers to move in that direction," said OPM Director John Berry, a leading telework advocate who called the option "a valuable tool for the government."

Steve O'Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, said the survey's results mirror previous findings. "It's a good direction, but it also shows where we still need to go," he said.

"Agencies really need to put their programs into drive by educating employees, training management and, importantly, setting an example by having upper management telework," O'Keeffe said.

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