House passes telework bill

Estimates differ on how much the measure will cost to implement -- and whether it ultimately will save agencies money.

The House on Wednesday approved telework legislation that the chamber failed to pass in May.

The bill (H.R. 1722), which passed on a 290-131 vote, would codify the governmentwide telework policy the Office of Management and Budget announced last year. It also would guarantee that eligible federal employees could work remotely at least 20 percent of the time, and it would mandate more training for managers.

The Senate passed a similar bill in May.

Before Wednesday's final vote, some Republicans expressed concern over the cost of the legislation. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that telework would cost agencies $2 million this year and $30 million between 2010 and 2015. That estimate took into account the costs of notifying employees of their eligibility to participate in telework programs, establishing regulations, providing guidance and preparing a federal study on the effectiveness of telework.

But the Telework Research Network released its data on Wednesday, saying the bill could save agencies and participants as much as $11 billion annually. Kate Lister, lead researcher for the advocacy organization, noted CBO's estimate for the five-year cost of the bill is half of what the federal government lost in productivity in a single day due to snow. In February, the federal government shut down for four consecutive days because of major snowstorms.

"The staggering costs of lost productivity from federal workers during last winter's snowstorms -- estimated by the government at $71 million a day -- would pay for the five-year cost of the bill in one day," Lister said in a statement.

The group used data from a 2006 study commissioned by the General Services Administration to estimate that if eligible employees telecommuted just one day every other week, agencies would increase productivity by more than $2.3 billion annually. Agencies also would save money on real estate, electricity, absenteeism and employee turnover, Lister said.

In addition, federal employees would avoid costs on transportation, other work-related expenses and health care, the group reported.

Federal employee unions strongly support the legislation, both for continuity of operations and for employee wellness and productivity.

"The benefits of telework were clear during the government shutdown due to snow earlier this year where teleworking federal employees were able to continue working, saving the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by avoiding lost productivity," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "Even in the normal course of work, telework brings about increased productivity due to uninterrupted time for federal employees to plan work, reduces tension levels by eliminating difficult commutes, and improves the quality of life due to time saved not commuting."

Kelley said the benefits are not only for employees and agencies: "There is a fiscal and social dimension as well. Telework saves federal, state and local taxpayers energy and infrastructure costs, improves air quality, reduces congestion and stress on roads and bridges, and enhances the quality of family life."

Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the advantages of federal telework programs include higher employee performance ratings, lower labor turnover rates, a greater sense of pride among employees, easier recruitment and a reduction in the need for and cost of office space.

"We at IFPTE believe that by passing H.R. 1722 the House of Representatives [will] be taking a huge step toward providing government agencies and their telework eligible employees with an environment that will be ripe for successful telework programs," Junemann said.

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