More than 1 million federal employees could be eligible to telecommute after President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act (H.R. 1722) into law on Dec. 9, 2010. The law requires all federal agencies to establish telework policies within six months.
According to statistics from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), approximately 1.2 million federal employees could become eligible for telework by June 2010. The law requires agencies to determine eligibility for their staffs and then to notify all workers who are eligible to telework under the new policies. In addition, the law requires each agency to appoint a telework managing officer and have that officer report directly to the agency’s head.
The law requires the development of telework training programs for federal employees who choose to telecommute. Their supervisors and agencies must rewrite their business continuity plans to include teleworking. The law requires managers and employees to sign written telework agreements that specify the expectations and requirements for telework arrangements. Managers and employees have to work together and agree on how often the employee can telework.
Congress Plowed Through Details
H.R. 1722 was introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2009 and languished in committees for several months. The proposal, however, gained momentum and bipartisan support after massive winter storms inundated the Washington, D.C., area with several feet of snow during the winter of 2009-2010. The blizzards, dubbed “Snowmageddon” by several media outlets, forced the federal government to shut down. According to estimates, a four-day shutdown following a blizzard in February 2010 cost the federal government between $70 million and $100 million per day in lost productivity.
Advocates for teleworking claim that the new law will provide the federal government with much-needed flexibility in dealing with weather-related and other disasters that can gridlock traffic. The new teleworking policies will reduce traffic in the Washington, D.C., area, advocates claim, and will save federal employees commuting time and costs.
“Federal telework will make the government more efficient, more attractive to aspiring public servants and more secure in the event of a natural disaster through continuity of operations,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, an advocacy group that promotes expanded federal telework. “The question is how to get there, and this bill has the answer. We feel that this bill is very strong and a great start and boost to teleworking programs.”
Auten and other supporters say the telework law could help reduce resistance from federal supervisors who have slowed the adoption of telework policies by federal agencies to a crawl. According to an OPM study conducted in 2008, approximately 103,000 federal employees (or less than 9 percent of the eligible workers) teleworked at least once per month in 2008.
According to the law, employees who must be physically present to do their jobs—such as health care providers, prison guards and law enforcement officials—will not be eligible for telework. Federal employees who have to handle secure or classified material and employees who have been punished for being absent more than five days in a year or punished for viewing or distributing pornography with a government computer will not be eligible.
Critics Warn of Budgetary Woes
Critics of the law claim that it will waste taxpayer dollars. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the legislation would cost the federal government $30 million in increased administrative costs by 2015.
A 2006 report from the consulting group Booz Allen Hamilton said teleworking could cost the federal government more than $5 million per year to supply 50,000 employees with the computers, scanners, phones and other equipment they would need to telework successfully. However, the Booz Allen report stated that the federal government could make up for those costs in productivity gains and other infrastructure savings. For example, the Patent and Trademark Office, a federal agency that uses telework successfully, reported that it has saved $11 million in office space since the agency began allowing workers to telecommute in 1997.
Critics of the new law, including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Va., have argued that the law will prove to be too costly and will offer federal employees a new perk at a time when agencies should be cutting back costs.
Issa, who is in line to become chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has indicated that he will schedule hearings on the telework law in 2011 and attempt to restore some of the oversight provisions that were cut from the legislation during debate in the Senate.
Issa has called telework law “a new bureaucratic mandate within the federal regime” and told reporters that he was going to watch implementation of the federal telework policies very carefully.
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.