By David H. Rothman

IF ANY CLERICAL worker is 100 percent gung-ho on working at home, it should be Yvonne Rice of Waldorf.

At least five times a week -- often more -- she gets up at dawn, sits down at a computer terminal linked by telephone to Blue Cross-Blue Shield in downtown Washington and, without leaving her house, keys in 400 to 700 insurance forms a day.

Rice earns about $25,000 a year for working about 55 hours a week. She saves on gas, clothes, lunches and the psychic wear-and- tear of commuting. Indeed, Blue Cross-Blue Shield even trotted her out for the "Today Show" to defend the growing "telecommuting" movement.

For all of that, Rice is not altogether satisfied with her arrangement. And the AFL- CIO is growing increasingly worried that Rice, and potentially millions of other workers like her, would be forced to turn their electronic cottages into electronic sweatshops. According to one informed estimate, up to 30,000 workers may be telecommuting, and their numbers are expected to grow rapidly.

The AFL-CIO's position is that electronic home work should be banned. A 1983 resolution adopted by the union's constitutional convention called for "an early ban on computer homework by the Department of Labor . . . ." The resolution claimed that computers would encourage piecework, drive wages down, increase the risk of employe exploitation, make it harder to ensure safe working conditions, reduce the likelihood of health and pension benefits and increase the chances that child labor laws will be violated.

Although Rice is not sympathetic to the union position -- "I was brought up antiunion," she says -- she is not entirely happy in her work. She toils 10 or 11 hours weekdays and four on Saturday. But in three years, she has't gotten one raise even though "I work my rear end off and do twice as much as someone in an office." Her pay per form: 16 cents. And Blue Cross-Blue Shield charges her $2,400 annually for the computer terminal that it requires her to rent from them.

Yvonne Rice is a good example of both the promises and perils of this new system. Telecommuting is like the H-bomb. If technology allows something to happen, sooner or later it probably will. Unlike nuclear weapons, however, telecommuting will be a blessing -- if employers, unions and politicians don't panic, and if workers get their share of the benefits.

Contrary to the AFL-CIO's fears, telecommuting could be a real boon to employe and employers alike. Under the right circumstances, even savvy unions could come out ahead, if they understood that the economics are often just too good to ignore -- especially at bargaining time.

Telecommuting offers the possibility of lower overhead for employers. In some cases companies might save more than $8,000 in rent and other expenses per telecommuting worker over five years compared to the same person working downtown in space rented for $20 per square foot. Prime downtown rents, of course, are now pushing past $35 a square foot in Washington and some other cities. Banks, insurance companies, consulting firms, law and many other employers could reduce the office space -- and therefor their rents -- if workers labored at home.

Telecommuting, in fact, might even help trim the national debt. Already the California equivalent of the U.S. General Services Administration is mapping out a 200-person telecommuting experiment. And for five years the U.S. Army in St. Louis has been letting a few civilian workers use terminals to work from home.

Telecommuting, of course, is no panacea. Most work requires face-to-face contact; many workers need water-cooler gossip.

Jack Nilles, however, the coiner of the word "telecommuting," says that 10 million Americans could be telecommuting full-or part-time by 1990 from home or neighbor centers. Many might use computers; others, just pencils and telephone. But if anything is fueling the movement of the electronic cottage industry, it's the rise of bargain-priced micros.

Five years ago, a home computer might have cost $4,000 or more. Today a used Kaypro II or Sanyo -- both suitable for many telecommuting tasks -- can be bought for as little as $600. Even with trimmings such as a printer and a modem -- the gadget that lets you "talk" to other machines on the phone -- the cost is less than half that of some typewriters.

But while the opportunities, potential savings and profits are being realized, some large issues should be resolved. For instance, will American companies avoid the temptation of discriminating against home workers -- especially in pay and benefits?

Last December CBS reporter Jane Bryant Quinn reported that that claims adjusters at the Wisconsin Physicians Service offices in Madison earned $4.10 an hour, while home workers -- who are supposedly independent contractors rather than employes -- received only $3.75.

Regular adjusters might typically retire on $600 per month in pension benefits from WPS after three decades; the home workers would receive no such beneifts. And the home workers, unlike the office ones, didn't receive group health insurance. Most, if not all, of the home workers are married, so that the spouse working outside the home presumably receives those benefits; but what if employers in the future deprive one- parent households of them?

As a deterrent to any effort to correct these discrepancies, according to Susan Adams, an organizer for Local 1444 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, WPS limits its off- site people to 19.75 hours -- just under the 20-hour cut-off that would allow the union to sign them up under the terms of the current contract.

Only some of the insurance company's home workers use computers. Precisely how many homeworkers WPS employs could not be determined because a company spokesman declined to discuss any aspect of home work with a reporter. But WPS' alleged practices illustrate the risks of high-tech sweatshops developing in the future.

In the D.C. area, Blue Cross-Blue Shield isn't paying sweatshop rates to Yvonne Rice -- quite the contrary. But if Rice worked similar hours -- with overtime calculated at time and a half -- as a regular employe in the office downtown, she would then collect the equivalent of more than $30,000 a year in pay and fringe benefits.

Why this difference in treatment? Because, like the Wisconsin workers, Rice is "an independent contractor."

Many companies may be opening themselves up to back-pay fights and other suits if they use the "independent" ploy to wiggle their way out of paying employes' Social Security obligations and other costs, according to Gil Gordon, a former pesonnel director for Johnson & Johnson. Gordon, now editor of "Telecommuting Review: The Gordon Report," warns employers against becoming Silicon-Age Scrooges. He cites the Internal Revenue Service's 1984 private letter ruling, 8451004, against a shorthand service that used home workers who provided their own computers or typewriters.

"The notion that you get a machine and someone gives you work," observes Don Elisburg, a prominent labor lawyer, "doesn't mean that all of a sudden you're an 'independent contractor.'"

The "independent" question is tricky, both morally and legally.

On one hand -- regardless of the lack of security beyond a one-year contract -- Rice loves life off a payroll. On the other hand, will people like her undercut companies' regular office forces?

Touchy issues indeed exist. How many clerks in an office spend $2,400 -- the amount Rice pays for her terminal -- to rent a typewriter? James Stroker, a spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of the National Capital Area, said that as an independent contractor she is required to furnish the tools of her trade. "We bought that equipment from IBM," Stroker said. "We need to recover equity." Stroker said that Blue Cross leases the terminals and makes only a small profit, if any, on the rental. He said Rice could buy a personal computer. According to her, however, she has sought to do just that for a year without Blue Cross- Blue Shield's cooperation.

The $2,400 terminal charge notwithstanding, many people thrive on home work. Yvonne Rice, for instance, hates the lack of a raise in three years but loves her "office," especially in the summer. "I'll go out in the afternoon," says Rice, 36, mother of two, "and watch the kids play in the pool." She needn't mess with fancy hairdos and clothes, and as she types, she can talk on the phone or listen to one of her favorite cable television programs, "The Jim Bakker Show."

Rice actually feels less isolated; she has gotten to know her neighbors better -- a view expressed by other telecommuters, some of whom find themselves more deeply immersed than ever in church, civic and community activities. Just as employers should honor clerical workers' rights, so should unions adjust to people like Rice.

But how to adjust?

Unions might use home visits, free technical assistance and computer nets to organize scattered telecommunters of the future. Organized labor might use a massive ad campaign with an 800 number and computer matching to steer the workers to the right unions.

With the right strategy, labor unions might actually thrive with the new cottage electronic industry. Jack Nilles in 1973 learned that insurance executives feared telecommuting largely because they were feared the workers would be too easy to organize." He told computer writer Jon Sacks, "that unions could pick them off one by one without management finding out until it was too late." Also, of course, unions might push for telecommuting to reduce companies' rents so more money would be available for salaries.

Government employes in one midwestern state are working at home with the cooperation of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. AFSCME is trying to see if home work might succeed -- despite the AFL-CIO's proposed ban on clerical telecommuting. AFSCME economist Kevin Murphy declined to reveal the local or state government involved. But he said the experiment started last year and was recently renewed for another six months.

Murphy warns not to generalize because of his union's positive experience here. Still, this example might be a very positive precedent for the union movement because:

The workers volunteered for the approximately half-dozen slots in the experiment. No one forced telecommuting on them.

No one loses normal salaries or fringe benefits.

The employer provides a computerized "bulletin board" on which the local can post messages.

The union inspects the workers' homes offices -- looking for the right lighting and other conditions important to the safe and comfortable use of computers.

The employer provides the computer equipment.

Workers visit the office at least one day a week so they aren't cut off from their colleagues.

Similarly, unions and enlightened employers might investigate alternatives

to the present choice between bucking traffic and being confined to an office in the home. Workers might work at least part of the time, for instance, in neighborhood centers hooked up via computer to the offices of different companies.

Such an experiment has been going on in Nikvarn, a Stockholm suburb, for at least two years. Elisabeth Lagerlof, a work environment attache at the Swedish embassy here, says that most of the workers have left the experiment. However, she believes that the remaining ones are more productive -- since they typically can avoid 20-mile commutes and shift around their schedules more easily. Researchers, not businesses, initiated the trial. And Lagerlof thinks the results could be still better under other conditions.

Why not go a step further and try "munytels" -- community centers where telecommuters could go when they tired of solitude, or where they could enjoy services such as child care. The telecommuters would use computers capable of hooking up to machines at a number of companies. The auxiliary services might turn out to be more useful than the munytels' terminals themselves. Contrary to some hype, for instance, telecommuting is not a solution to the child-care problem as anyone who has tried working on a terminal while minding a baby can attest.

In the new book "Working From Home," telecommuting boosters Paul and Sara Edwards warn: "When working parents care for toddlers and preschoolers at home, the typical result is that little work gets done and/or the parents end up expecting the young children to behave in ways beyond their abilities. This usually leads to a flood of yelling and unpleasantness. It can also result in emotional or behavior problems in the children." Munytels would be one answer.

Some workers, of course, wanting a clear line between work and home, might key in from munytels all the time. Companies could offer munytel allowances to employees on payrolls; in effect they'd be letting workers choose their own offices. Mike Bell, a Xerox executive, has even proposed that munytels could be franchised like hamburger stands.

Munytels and shared central offices would be a way for government to use part-time telecommuting to trim rent and construction expenditures. The U.S. General Services Administration spends $2,500 annually to provide work space for the typical federal worker. That's more than double the cost of some complete computer systems.

Productivity alone, however, could justify home work without the piecework system. Don Koch, formerly a top official at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, says that Economic Review, the bank's magazine, was able to quadruple the number of pages after staffers began working full-or part-time at home rather than in a distraction-ridden office.

Discussing a 200-person telecommuting experiment expected to cost more than $1.5 million if approved, a California official said: "We're sure we can get a 20 percent productivity increase and pay for the project in 15 months.

"It could be anything from turning out more legal briefs to budget reports," said David Fleming, a planner with the state's Department of General Services. He sees recruitment benefits, too: "Some people want to work for us but not move to Sacramento."

Not all workers, of course, would be successful at telecommuting. Telecommuters need to be self-starters, or else the employer should monitor performance and agree with the worker on goals. Similarly, government and industry shouldn't force home work on a worker who hates it. And labor unionists and others should keep exposing exploitation. "Home work in the 1800s," says John Zalusky, an AFL-CIO economist, "successfully competed with slave labor. At least the slave owner had to worry about caring for his property."

Still, for the right people and companies, telecommuting will be a blessing.