By Russell Berman - 07/13/10 12:16 AM EDT
As the capital bakes in the summer heat, House Democrats are turning their attention back to the crippling snowstorms that shut down the federal government last winter — in hopes of finding a way to keep employees working if it happens again.
The House plans to vote this week on a bill, authored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), that encourages more teleworking by federal employees. The legislation would provide training for teleworking and require the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees the federal workforce, to develop a government-wide policy for working off-site.
While advocates have pressed for years to expand telecommuting by government employees, the back-to-back storms that blanketed the capital region and forced the government to shut down for four days in February gave the push momentum. Critics asked why the government needed to shut down at all in an age of e-mail, instant messages and video conferencing.
OPM Director John Berry said earlier this year that limited teleworking during the shutdown saved taxpayers $30 million a day, cutting the projected loss of productivity from an initial estimate of $100 million.
“Nothing could have highlighted better the benefits of teleworking than those snowstorms,” Sarbanes said in an interview. “It was a great example of how you could keep the government operations going.”
Sarbanes said he hoped to expand teleworking capability to the point where, “in effect, you could avoid a government shutdown” during a paralyzing snowstorm or other weather event.
President Barack Obama pushed for an expansion of federal teleworking in March, saying greater flexibility could have mitigated the storms’ impact.
Berry has also said teleworking is key to his broader goal of boosting the productivity and management of the workforce. “Encouraging telework can reduce barriers to productivity such as the time of day and location that work gets done. It is also vital to ensuring continuity of operations,” he said in a statement to The Hill. “We must train and equip our employees to focus on results, no matter where they are or how much snow is falling.”
The legislation does not set specific targets for teleworking, but officials have said that some 60 percent of the 1.9 million federal employees could be eligible. Supporters have cited a range of potential benefits, including a reduction in traffic and carbon dioxide emissions and savings in real estate costs. The Obama administration has said it could also help with recruiting, since the government would be better positioned to compete for talented employees with more flexible work environments in the private sector.
While the House vote in May fell just shy of the two-thirds support necessary, the 268 votes it received, including 24 from Republicans, signals that it stands a good chance of passing when Democrats bring it up this week under regular order. It would now need only a simple majority.
Most Republicans opposed the legislation because of a report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projecting that it would cost taxpayers $30 million, despite claims by supporters that it would save money in the long run. The costs come from the funding for additional training, as well as a requirement that agencies each designate a teleworking manager.
“Somehow, Washington Democrats took a proposal that was supposed to save money and wound up increasing the deficit by $30 million,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House GOP leader John Boehner (Ohio). “Their ability to keep their out-of-control spending spree going is breathtaking.”
Sarbanes said the charge that the bill would add to the deficit was false, since it does not include any appropriations. The cost of implementing the training requirements would be borne by existing agency funds, he said. The CBO projection also does not take into account potential savings to taxpayers associated with expanded teleworking, Sarbanes said.
“The savings they’re going to see are going to far outweigh the costs,” he said.
Supporters of the bill say the hiring of a telework manager for government agencies is critical to establishing a system to enable employees to telework regularly.
“You can’t just start teleworking tomorrow. It really has to be implemented into standard operating procedure,” said Cindy Auten, general manager for the Telework Exchange, an advocacy group that backs the bill.
Sarbanes said the survey showed the potential for expanding teleworking to as much as two-thirds of the federal workforce.
One primary obstacle to a faster expansion has been managers who are worried about a loss of productivity from employees working out of the office, Auten said. “There’s a fear of losing control,” she said. By increasing training for teleworking, she added, the legislation could address many of those concerns.