Congress Ponders Bills Promoting Telework by Federal Employees

Published October 1, 2007

Reflecting an effort to fight traffic congestion and conserve fuel in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, Congress is crafting legislation that will direct federal agencies to encourage and bolster telecommuting programs for government employees.

In early August the House of Representatives approved The Telework Enhancement Act of 2007 that among other things tells agencies–including the courts–to make telework training mandatory, to conduct periodic performance reviews of employee participation in the programs, and to appoint a full-time, senior-level employee to coordinate the program as telework managing officer.

According to a House energy-efficiency bill amendment offered by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) and strongly supported by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), federal agencies also would be subject to annual telework program ratings devised by the U.S. Comptroller General.

Telework managing officers will be required to submit annual reports on their respective agencies’ telecommuting programs and progress to the Comptroller General, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate Majority Leader.

Mandating Telework

With federal agencies previously enacting telecommuting incentives based on their own initiatives, the new law would mandate a formal process and metrics for success within the government to handle stay-at-home work rules and conditions.

Current rules do not require agencies to have a full-time employee overseeing the program. The House amendment states its goal is to ensure eligible telecommuters are encouraged to participate in telework to the maximum extent possible without diminishing employee performance or agency operations.

Proponents of telework programs claim telecommuting has environmental benefits such as reducing vehicle emissions and can also improve employee recruitment and retention. Many law enforcement, home security, and emergency preparedness agencies on all levels of government advocate formal agency telework policies because they can aid continuity of operations planning for crises, through organized dispersal of employees and computer/telecom technology.

Pending in Both Chambers

Wolf is a longtime, vocal proponent of federal telework programs because residents of his district near Washington, DC include many federal employees who face daily roadway congestion.

A similar amendment of the same name is pending in the Senate, but as in the House much of the measure’s fate is tied to the outcome of larger energy-efficiency legislation and disputes on other components of the bill, such as eliminating several tax subsidies for the oil and gas industries.

The telework amendments come at a time when some legislative and administration spot surveys underscore disappointment in federal agency telecommuting progress.

Numbers Dropping

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently sent a report to Congress saying of 78 agencies it surveyed–representing more than 1.2 million federal employees eligible to work from an alternative site–there was a drop in regular federal teleworkers to 119,248 in 2005 from 140,694 in 2004.

According to the OPM survey, about 44 percent of federal agencies already provide telework training to employees and 55 percent provide it to managers only. The survey additionally said about 37 percent of the agencies budget money for special telework needs.

The OPM report said management resistance and organizational culture were major obstacles to federal telework progress. It suggested it is crucial that more guidance be given for each agency to develop a telework policy that best accomplishes its goals.

The Senate version of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2007 is co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA). The two Senate co-sponsors have said the bill would improve cost efficiency in government and enhance federal employees’ family lives.

Frank Barbetta ([email protected]) writes from Little Falls, New Jersey.