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Is This the Right Time for the White House to Promote Working from Home?

Allegations of feds abusing telework at Patent and Trademark Office put honest employees and managers in a tough spot.

Agencies should not create “arbitrary and unnecessary barriers” to telework or other work flexibilities available to federal employees, according to new guidance from the Office of Personnel Management.

The government should be “doing its best” to offer such benefits to the workforce, although OPM emphasized that employee requests for workplace flexibilities such as telework and part-time employment “are still subject to approval” and that supervisors will have to consider the “appropriateness” of requests and the impact on agency mission. OPM issued the guidance Friday to department heads in response to a June 23 memorandum from President Obama that said employees “have the right to request work schedule flexibilities available to them under law, pursuant to an applicable collective bargaining agreement, or under agency policy, without fear of retaliation or adverse employment action as a consequence of making such a request,” and that agencies must periodically educate employees about those flexibilities. Obama required OPM to provide the guidance 60 days after he issued his memorandum.

The president wants the federal government to serve as a model for the American workforce when it comes to work-life balance, but that’s easier said than done. The current push to make telework and other workplace flexibilities available to federal employees comes at a time when feds and agencies are under the microscope over how much they give out in bonuses and how well they monitor those working offsite. Earlier this month, a Washington Post report found that thousands of patent examiners, half of whom work from home, lied about their hours and received bonuses for work they never did. That story followed a Commerce Department inspector general report that found a unit within the Patent Office paid 19 paralegals more than $5 million over a four-year period to essentially do whatever they wished because there wasn’t enough work to keep them busy. PTO for years has been lauded as a model for telework in the federal government.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., last week said he was launching an investigation into the alleged telework abuses at PTO.

The more detailed guidance from OPM Director Katherine Archuleta identifies “flexibilities” as: alternative work schedules (e.g. flexible work schedule, compressed work schedule); telework; job sharing; and part-time employment. Job sharing is a type of part-time employment where one job is filled with two or more part-time employees. Each “job sharer” can work up to 32 hours per week, at an agency’s discretion and subject to available resources, according to OPM’s website. 

OPM also listed the type and amount of leave available to federal employees, ranging from annual and sick leave to benefits available under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. Other flexibilities available to federal employees include child and elder care assistance; employee assistance programs, including counseling; and support for nursing mothers, including onsite lactation resources. Obama’s memo directed agencies to expand access to those and other flexibilities available to employees “to the maximum extent practicable, in accordance with the laws and regulations governing these programs and consistent with mission needs.”

Agency supervisors must consider an employee’s request “carefully” and respond within 20 business days of the initial request, or sooner if required by agency policy. Obama also tasked OPM with supporting agencies in providing employees with workplace flexibilities as well as creating an annual online Workplace Flexibility Index based on data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to measure agencies’ progress. Within 120 days of the date of the memorandum, agencies have to submit a report to OPM that lists how they use workplace flexibilities, as well as any best practices or obstacles they’ve encountered in implementing them.

OPM will issue separate guidance soon on putting together those reports, Archuleta’s Aug. 22 memo said.

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