Although the U.S. House of Representatives didn't pass a bill designed to increase the number of federal employees who telecommute when it came up for a vote in May, sponsor Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., is trying again, this time bringing it to the House floor under regular order, which requires a simple majority for passage. According to The Hill, the earlier vote fell just short of the two-thirds support it required under suspension rules, a process sometimes used for non-controversial measures. (In today's highly partisan environment, lawmakers can apparently find controversy in almost any measure.)
As I wrote after the initial House vote, the Telework Enhancement Act would require agencies to expand teleworking opportunities for employees and incorporate telework programs into their continuity-of-operations plans. It would also require agencies to establish policies with the Office of Personnel Management allowing employees to work from their homes or other locations, as long as teleworking does not interfere with employees' jobs. Agencies would designate telework-managing officers, who would report to chief human capital officers. The Senate has already passed a similar bill.
Although 24 House Republicans voted for the bill in May, most GOP lawmakers opposed the legislation, thanks to a report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projecting that it would cost taxpayers $30 million. The costs come from funding for additional training, as well as a requirement that agencies each designate a teleworking manager. The Hill quotes Michael Steel, spokesman for House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio:
Somehow, Washington Democrats took a proposal that was supposed to save money and wound up increasing the deficit by $30 million. Their ability to keep their out-of-control spending spree going is breathtaking.
Sarbanes says the bill won't increase the deficit since it does not include any appropriations. Instead, existing agency funds would cover the cost of implementing training requirements. Also, he says, long-term savings created by the bill "are going to far outweigh the costs." Sarbanes and other Democrats cite the Office of Personnel Management's finding that limited teleworking during snowstorms that forced the government to shut down for four days in February saved taxpayers $30 million a day, cutting the projected productivity loss from an initial estimate of $100 million.
When IT Business Edge contributor Carl Weinschenk interviewed Charley Grantham, executive producer of the Work Design Collaborative think tank, Grantham said telework should yield significant savings for most organizations, but only if they are willing to invest money up front to properly introduce telework to the work force. He said:
It saves money, but it is important to understand that you have to invest up front. There is a requirement for new tech people. They need portable gear, they need high-speed connections to corporate HQs. There also is additional expense for more training. You can't say, "now you work every Tuesday and Wednesday from home," without training. Managers have to be trained in how to manage distance workers based on performance. You have to spend some money in order to save a bunch of money.
A survey of nearly 250,000 federal workers released earlier this week shows that less than 10 percent of federal employees telework at least one full day a week. More than one-third of respondents said they did not telework because their jobs required them to be present on-site. A troubling 23 percent said they did not work from home because they were not allowed to, despite having the technical capacity to do so, showing there is still cultural resistance to telecommuting. About 7 percent said technical or equipment issues prevented them from working outside their office.
Supporters of the Telework Enhancement Act say it could help reduce traffic and carbon dioxide emissions and help government agencies cut their real estate costs. Offering more flexibile work environments could also help the federal government attract younger workers, a key initiative since large numbers of federal employees that will be eligible to retire in the next few years.