By Elizabeth Newell Jochum
June 25, 2004A House panel has approved a legislative provision that would withhold $5 million from the budgets of the State, Commerce and Justice departments until they prove that they allow eligible employees to telework.
The provision, passed Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee as part of a fiscal 2005 spending bill, is an effort by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations subcommittee, to implement his long-pursued teleworking goals. The legislation will next be considered by the full House.
If passed, the measure would also withhold appropriations from the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the federal judiciary if they do not show that eligible employees are allowed to work from home or from a telecommuting center at least once a week.
Each agency would be required to submit quarterly reports to Congress showing progress on teleworking, and would need to designate a telework coordinator to oversee the "implementation and operation of telecommuting programs within each department," according to a statement from Wolf's spokesman, Dan Scandling.
Wolf sponsored the 2001 Federal Telework Mandate, (P.L. 106-346), which requires managers to permit eligible employees to telework so long as it doesn't affect their job performance. The law requires that 25 percent of eligible employees participate by April 2001, 50 percent by April 2002, and 75 percent by April 2003.
The actual numbers, however, which the Office of Personnel Management reported last month, fell far below those goals. OPM declined to comment on the pending legislation.
"Hopefully it'll be viewed as an incentive," Scandling said. "Something has to be done to move some of these agencies to embrace the idea. Teleworking works--it's just a matter of it being embraced and given the opportunity."
At least for the Small Business Administration, the bill might not cause major changes, said Mike Stamler, an agency spokesman. "From the language I've seen, we're in compliance now," he said. All SBA employees are eligible, Stamler said, and to date 11 percent take advantage of the program.
"We fully embrace our goal and are working hard to achieve it," said John Nester, an SEC spokesman.
The State Department "supports telecommuting to the extent possible," but has unique difficulties because most of its employees work overseas, said Darla Jordan, a spokeswoman. The majority of Washington-based employees require access to secure computer systems capable of storing classified information, posing "special challenges," she said.
The Justice and Commerce departments did not return calls for comment.
Wolf often has said that agency managers' reluctance to implement the telework program has hindered what he sees as an effort beneficial to the environment, traffic conditions, emergency preparedness and quality of life for workers.
"It is a change, and there's fear that it won't work," Scandling said. "Every study has shown that teleworkers prove to be more productive, take fewer sick days, and there are enormous cost savings. There's a continuity of government issue, too."
The House Government Reform Committee also has shown concern over the federal government's relatively limited use of teleworking. It will hold a hearing on July 8 to address the issue.
OPM also is attempting to expand the program. The personnel agency has hosted several training sessions and seminars aimed at increasing telework levels at the agencies that reported less than 2 percent participation in the 2002 telework report. OPM officials have stated that telework is vital to continuity of operations. They believe this line of reasoning will appeal to managers and increase program participation.
By Elizabeth Newell Jochum
June 25, 2004