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Federal agency’s shift away from allowing employees to telecommute could add to region’s congestion

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wants USDA employees to spend more time in the office for camaraderie and to better serve constituents. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

A new initiative at the U.S. Agriculture Department that requires thousands of its employees to work from the agency’s offices rather than at home has some planners and traffic experts worried that other federal agencies could follow suit — a move that would increase congestion on area roads.

After years of encouraging more of its employees to telework, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue reversed course this year and said employees would be permitted to telework only one day a week — and no more than two days per pay period. Before, eligible employees could work remotely up to four days per week.

Perdue did not respond to requests for comment on the policy change, but in an emailed statement a spokesman said: “USDA’s telework policy is designed to be responsible to the taxpayers and responsive to the customers who depend on our services. It is also respectful of our fellow employees who come to work each day.”

The shift, which began last month, is part of Perdue’s ­OneUSDA philosophy, which aims to promote “USDA as one family, working together as a single team to serve the American people,” the spokesman added.

Case-by-case exceptions can be made by supervisors if there are space issues, officials said. Like many federal agencies, the USDA has downsized its office space as more workers opted to telework. Nationwide, one-third of the USDA’s 97,200 employees telework.

“We’re just baffled by it,” said Jeff Streiffer, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1106.

Added Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a co-sponsor of the 2010 legislation that increased the teleworking opportunity for federal workers: “This is a retrograde move by Perdue.”

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The change is happening at other federal agencies, too. The Commerce and Education departments have placed new restrictions on teleworking. But some, such as the Defense Department, said they do not plan to make any alterations to their current program.

According to an analysis by AAA-Mid Atlantic, about 5,200 USDA employees in the Washington region telecommute at least a portion of each week. And although the number is relatively small compared with other federal agencies, it will have an impact on commuters in the region, AAA spokesman John Townsend said.

The shift also at USDA could add nearly 42,000 trips weekly to roads, trains, buses and other transportation modes. Over a year, that could mean up to 2.1 million additional commuter trips.

USDA officials said that because the change is part of a nationwide shift, it did not conduct an assessment of its impact on local traffic patterns — which Connolly and Townsend said was shortsighted.

“It affects every doggone commuter out there,” Townsend said. “It puts more traffic back on our roads, buses and Metro.”

The shift also runs counter to recent efforts to get more federal workers to telework.

In 2010, Congress passed legislation to encourage more federal workers to telework. While the legislation requires that agencies develop policies allowing employees to work remotely, it leaves the decision of who and how many workers should telework to the individual agencies. The Washington region is home to 420,000 federal workers.

According to the 2016 report, released in December by the Office of Personnel Management, the number of those workers who telework has steadily increased. Participation in fiscal 2016 grew from 20 percent to 22 percent of all employees; more than half of those eligible to telework do.

Planners have cited teleworking as a key strategy for reducing congestion in a region where traffic jams are commonplace. Even as the region has embraced new ways for moving people to get cars off the roads — Bikeshare, ­ride-hailing, car-sharing and high-occupancy toll lanes — traffic remains an issue. Last year, a study dubbed a stretch of Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia the worst traffic “hot spot” in the nation with 23 traffic jams a day. Now, with Amazon eyeing several sites in the region for its second headquarters — a move that could come with 50,000 jobs — proving that area leaders can tackle traffic congestion will become even more critical. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post)

Kanti Srikanth, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said that even if the impact of the USDA policy is concentrated in areas around the agency’s main office on Jefferson Drive and satellite offices in Southwest Washington and Greenbelt, Md., it means more commuters.

The agency’s main office is near the Smithsonian Metro station, which could boost ridership for the troubled transit system. Even so, Srikanth said that given past patterns, about two-thirds of workers probably will drive.

He said it will be important for planners to watch whether Perdue’s actions ripple across the federal government.

“The larger point is [whether] what is happening at USDA is an indication of what could or may happen with all the other federal agencies,” he said. If there is a move away from teleworking, “ then that could really be unfortunate for our region.”

The shift is also curious because as governor of Georgia, Perdue championed telework as a strategy for easing traffic congestion.

“Work Away will improve the quality of life for thousands of Georgians who spend countless hours commuting over long distances or on traffic filled roads,” Perdue said in a 2003 news release announcing the program. “This program will reduce traffic and increase the productivity of employees while defining state government as a model for high-tech business practices.”

Joe Davidson and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.