OPM says telework has increased despite appearances

Change in definition accounts for falling numbers; disparities in telework by pay grade remain.

The Office of Personnel Management released a report late last week that shows what officials say is a deceptive drop in the number of federal employees working from home.

The 2006 Status of Telework in the Federal Government report, released Friday, stated that 119,248 federal employees teleworked in 2005. In 2004, the number was 140,694. At first, the findings suggest that despite increased initiatives, the number of people who chose to work from home actually went down substantially.

Actually, the reverse is true, according to OPM. More people are working from home than ever before, and they're doing so more frequently than in the past.

For the latest report, OPM only measured teleworkers who work from home once a month or more. Previous reports included data on people who telecommuted as infrequently as once a year.

The stricter definition provides a "better indicator of telework program implementation," OPM said. Of the 119,248 people who counted as teleworkers under the new definition, 60 percent teleworked "frequently," or at least once a week in 2005, an increase of 1,300 since 2004.

Also for the first time, OPM considered all federal employees eligible for telework except those who work with sensitive materials or whose performance has recently been reported as substandard. The new eligibility definition meant 70 percent of federal workers qualified for telework in 2005, as opposed to the 41 percent eligible in 2004.

The report comes on the heels of a June 12 Senate oversight subcommittee hearing on new legislation aimed at expanding eligibility to nearly all federal employees.

OPM relied on agency data to compile the report. The data shows that 78 percent of federal agencies track most of their teleworkers by how many telework agreements have been signed. But there's no effective measure of whether employees who sign telework agreements are actually working from home.

Cindy Auten, general manager of the public-private partnership the Telework Exchange, said research into actual adoption "would be an excellent way" to track telework implementation. She said automated telework tracking, which 23 percent of agencies use, yields more accurate data.

OPM's results reveal that telework is more popular at certain agencies. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts had telework participation rates of more than 35 percent. Among the larger agencies, the Commerce Department received the highest rating, with 11,491 employees, or 34.1 percent of those eligible, teleworking. Of those, 7,268, or about 63 percent, spent at least three days a week away from the office.

Meanwhile, only 6.1 percent of eligible Defense Department employees teleworked in 2005, and the majority teleworked once a month rather than once a week.

OPM's data also display telework disparities by pay grade. Telework was most popular among General Schedule grades 12-14, or those who earn $56,301 to $102,848 a year.

Auten said the numbers might signal growing openness to telework among higher-paid managers and supervisors. "A lot of managers are afraid of telework because it's unknown," she said. "Hopefully, once they gain some exposure, [telework] will become more acceptable for everyone."

The report also raises the question of who should pay for Internet access, equipment and other costs of telework. Ten federal agencies provided or purchased all equipment, according to OPM. Many others used cost-sharing schemes whereby they paid a percentage.

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