The federal employe won a new privilege yesterday -- the right to phone home.
In a major shift in federal policy, the General Services Administration announced that civil servants may make "necessary" personal calls on government telephones.
But at the same time, GSA will make it easier to spot abusers -- those who call for horoscopes, who make recurrent calls to friends, who call after hours or who talk a long time.
The new regulations replace a collection of Draconian rules that legally prohibited, for example, an employe from calling his family to say he had been severely injured on the job.
The old rules were widely regarded as foolish and almost impossible to enforce. The President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency found widespread abuse when it conducted a survey two years ago. In one agency, nearly half the calls that the council traced were personal.
Federal employes complained that the government appeared to expect people to cheat -- pay telephones were not available, agencies had no system for being reimbursed for calls, and the rules were far out of line with common practice.
"It is the responsibility of employes to use the telephone system properly -- legally," said GSA Administrator Terence C. Golden in a statement. Employes making strictly personal calls must reimburse the government, or use a credit card or call collect, according to the new regulations.
The regulations say the government telephone system must be used only for the conduct of official business, but official business has been defined to include emergency and other compassionate personal calls.
These include:Calls to report illness or injury.
Calls to notify family if an employe is delayed while traveling on official business.
A brief daily call by an employe traveling more than one night away from home on government business within the country. A call home to report the need to work overtime without notice. A brief daily call to speak to a spouse, child or baby sitter. Calls to essential local numbers that can be contacted only during the business day.
Golden called the new rules a "common sense response to legitimate employe needs."
"We think that once we have a sensible policy in place that everybody understands, people will stop making the calls they shouldn't," said John J. Landers, special assistant to the commissioner of GSA's information resources management service. "If they don't, the agencies will have a lot better information to use in cracking down on real abuse.
"Right now, the manager is in a terrible position," Landers said, because if he tries to enforce the policy against everybody, it is not seen as humane. "If he tries to enforce the policy against real abuse, he is accused of a lack of even-handedness. If he tries to crack down on somebody who is running a used-car parts business, the guy screams about the woman across the aisle who is calling her baby sitter.
"Most supervisors throw up their hands."
GSA last month began sending agencies monthly records highlighting long, recurrent and other unusual calls. But the system is not perfect: Information passed on in October was about calls in June.
Before, however, federal agencies received months-old information about 20 percent of all calls -- but only four times a year.