Stay home, Congress advises government workers

Monday’s winter storm dropped 3 inches of snow on the area, not the 10 expected. But, assuming future predictions prove more accurate, federal workers may be interested in this: several agencies are under order to make it easier to work from home or another remote location — or have their budgets trimmed by a cool $5 million each.

Rep. Frank WolfFrank WolfOvernight Regulation: Supreme Court rejects GOP redistricting challenge Supreme Court rejects GOP challenge to Va. redistricting plan Lobbying World MORE (R-Va.), whose constituents often face a long commute within the metro area, attached a provision to the massive omnibus appropriations bill last year requiring the State, Justice and Commerce departments and three other federal entities to ensure that everyone eligible to “telecommute” can.

Congress also directed the agencies — which also include the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the federal judiciary — to hire a telecommuting coordinator to encourage more workers to take advantage of new technologies that allow them to stay away from the office.

The agencies had until Feb. 8 to come up with those plans or face the budget cut. At least two agencies had responded, according to one source.

The congressional language grew out of frustration many local lawmakers feel with the federal government’s telecommuting, or teleworking, efforts. Congress passed a law in 2000 that established specific telecommuting goals.

“Congress has been working for several years to push teleworking,” said Dan Schandling, a spokesman for Wolf. “Now it has come to a point where we have to use the threat of cutting budgets to make it happen.”

By April, federal agencies were to have had in place policies and procedures to ensure that any worker who is eligible to work remotely can do so.

Most agencies are far from reaching that goal. A survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management — one of two agencies directing telework efforts — showed the number of telecommuters grew by 20 percent from 2003 to 2004, to a total of 126,531. But more than 751,844 — out of 1.7 million federal employees — are eligible for the remote work. Each agency decides who is eligible, based on such factors as the portability of their jobs and available alternatives to coming into work.

Telework proponents point to a number of benefits.

“It reduces traffic and air pollution, improves employee morale … expands opportunities for people with disabilities,” said Drew Crockett, a spokesman for House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), who also has a number of constituents who could benefit from telecommuting.

“The innovations of the information age — laptop computers, broadband Internet service, BlackBerrys and so forth — continue to make location less relevant in the working world,” Davis said in a July 8, 2004, committee hearing on the subject.

Efforts to increase telecommuting preceded Sept. 11, 2001, but the terrorist attack heightened the importance of the issue for area lawmakers.

Wolf and Davis have each pushed agencies to include teleworking in disaster contingency plans. The threat of a future attack makes teleworking “an imperative,” Davis said.

While teleworking includes the opportunity to work from home, workers can also go to various remotely located teleworking centers, often funded through congressional earmarks. There are 15 centers in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the District. Other major cities also have teleworking centers.

Michael Peregrino, the director of the Hagerstown, Md., telework center, said the facility could handle twice the number of teleworkers that it usually does.

“It’s underutilized,” he said.

There are 25 workstations at the facility — which is 10 years old — and phones, faxes, laser printers and conference rooms. Both federal and private-sector workers use the space, and Peregrino said the center sometimes offers the first month of use free or dinner coupons to area restaurants to encourage people to work at the center.

Congress has offered its incentives, too,  providing the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration a total of $500,000 in 2003 to aid efforts to improve teleworking opportunities.

One problem that may be delaying progress is reluctance of managers to let their employees out of sight, according to critics of agency efforts.

“Middle managers are having a really hard time adapting to change,” Schandling said.