Mixed reviews for government one year after telework law

A letter to the OPM director highlights the steps agencies should take in 2012

As the federal government starts its second year under the Telework Enhancement Act, a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) survey highlights key ways in which federal agencies are making progress in allowing employees to telework, while others remain focused on implementation plans and still others show room for improvement.

Although CRS surveys aren’t typically made publicly available, a recent letter from Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.) to John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, showcases steps several federal agencies have taken and makes recommendations for ways other agencies could foster greater use of telework in 2012.

  • The Department of Agriculture, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and General Services Administration have a relatively high rate of total work hours accomplished through telework, even though many USDA employees spend a great deal of time in the field. USPTO employees completed 40 percent of all work hours under telework arrangements. The congressmen lauded those agencies for integrating telework into their daily operations, which is consistent with the legislation’s goals.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs classified 87.5 percent of employees as ineligible for telework and doesn’t keep track of the number of employees who telework or the total number of labor hours completed via telework. The congressmen said that although the VA didn’t provide detailed reasons for such a high rate of telework ineligibility, it seems unlikely that so many employees must work on-site.
  • Other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, have classified a high percentage of employees as eligible for telework, yet a relatively small percentage of total work hours are completed that way. Connolly and Sarbanes suggested that those departments focus on ensuring that telework becomes routine. “Frequent telework is critical for continuity-of-operations preparation and to achieve real estate and utility cost savings,” they wrote.
  • Some agencies that have a high percentage of desk jobs have fairly prohibitive telework eligibility standards and low rates of telework participation. The Department of the Treasury, for example, classified 53 percent of its employees as ineligible for telework, and only 1 percent of the agency’s work hours were completed via telework. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security classified 70 percent of its employees as ineligible, and only an average of 0.016 percent of employees teleworked during a given pay period. The congressmen criticized DHS’ telework efforts as abysmal given the large number of office positions at the agency and pointed out that the poor track record of telework could pose a threat to national security if DHS is unable to implement a continuity-of-operations plan because employees are unaccustomed to telework. The congressmen offered to work with OPM to help “laggard agencies catch up to their higher-performing counterparts.”
  • Many agencies said they have had a hard time quantifying the energy and real estate savings generated from telework. Connolly and Sarbanes noted that other federal institutions could emulate the methods USPTO and GSA have used to quantify cost savings. The congressmen reported that USPTO, for example, has saved $4.36 million in real estate costs by avoiding construction of offices for 3,464 employees, which means the savings governmentwide would likely be substantial and well worth quantifying.

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