New telework bill introduced in Senate

By Daniel Pulliam

Advocates of work-from-home policies in government found new congressional support last week when two senators introduced legislation that would make most federal employees eligible for telework by default.

The bill, introduced by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., would reverse a law that makes federal employees ineligible to telework unless their agencies decide otherwise. The legislation would require agencies to show that an employee's job is inappropriate for work away from the office in order to prevent the practice. It would not apply to employees whose jobs involve sensitive materials, national security or physical contract with equipment.

In a statement, Stevens and Landrieu said the legislation was introduced because it would enhance efficiency, reduce traffic congestion and improve the lives of federal employees by allowing them to work from home on a full- or part-time basis.

"This bill represents just one small piece of that puzzle," said Stevens, who is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "By encouraging federal agencies to allow employees to work from home, we will reduce their use of gasoline, save them thousands of dollars in fuel expenses each year and help protect our environment."

The legislation also would require all new employees and managers to take telework training courses. All reviews of job performance would include a discussion of telework feasibility.

In addition, each agency would need to designate a full-time employee as a "Telework Managing Officer" responsible for implementing a telework policy. The official would serve as a liaison between employees and managers as well, and would develop accountability and productivity criteria. The official also would keep employees informed of their telework eligibility.

The bill defines telework as an arrangement where employees work regularly at an alternative site at least two business days a week to reduce their commuting time.

The most recent governmentwide survey of employee teleworkers, released in December 2005, showed that the number working away from the office grew by 37 percent in 2004. Of the 1.8 million employees included in that survey, 752,337 were deemed eligible for telework by their agencies. Of those, nearly 19 percent -- or 140,694 - took advantage of the arrangement.

"This legislation will help American families by giving federal workers the opportunity to continue serving the nation while spending more quality time with their loved ones," Landrieu said. "It is a commonsense proposal, and I will work closely with my colleagues to secure its quick passage."

As chairman of the House Science-State-Justice-Commerce appropriations subcommittee during the last session of Congress, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., an outspoken supporter of alternative work arrangements, sought to encourage telework by exerting financial pressure on the agencies under his jurisdiction.

Wolf's most recent bill, which failed to pass into law last session, would have required agencies under the panel's jurisdiction to outline strategies to increase the number of workers eligible to telecommute, and would have withheld $5 million in appropriations for fiscal 2007 if the number of telecommuters failed to increase over the previous year.

Wolf's office did not respond to a request for comment on telework-related legislative efforts this Congress.

A study released Monday by the Telework Exchange, an Alexandria, Va., private-public partnership, indicated that interest in telework is increasing, but agencies lack personnel dedicated to implementing it.

According to the study, a majority of federal telework coordinators spend a quarter or less of their time on telework-related work. The study included 36 representatives from 26 civilian and Defense Department agencies.

In January, the Telework Exchange and the Federal Managers Association, a 200,000-member organization representing the interests of supervisors, released a study that showed that federal managers still have reservations about telework. A fear of losing control over employees was the top concern, the study stated.

But compared with the private sector, the government outpaces its counterparts by a 3-1 margin, a recent study from the information technology vendor CDW Government said.