Lawmakers weigh proposal to expand telework eligibility

Group representing managers argues they should have the final say in determining which employees can work away from the office.

Legislation that would make most federal employees eligible to telework got a mixed reception at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

The legislation would allow employees -- with a few exceptions -- to work away from the office unless their agencies show their jobs aren't suitable for the arrangement. Currently, agencies set the rules for eligibility, and policies differ.

In addition, the 2007 Telework Enhancement Act (S. 1000), introduced in March by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., recommends that each agency appoint a full-time telework managing officer.

Stephen O'Keeffe, the executive director of the Telework Exchange, which promotes the alternate work arrangement, praised the bill. New technology makes working from home more achievable than ever, he said.

David Isaacs, the director of government affairs for Hewlett-Packard, noted that the private sector manufactures encryption and remote laptop tracking technology that could keep data on at-home computers secure from hackers and theft.

But despite the technical feasibility, several witnesses at the hearing had reservations about extending eligibility. Tom Davison was at the hearing for the Federal Managers Association, a trade group that represents nearly 200,000 supervisors and executives. Davison said supervisors should have the final say in determining whether an employee is suited for telework. If workers underperform, he said, managers should be able to deny them telework privileges.

Bernice Steinhardt, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, said agencies are not monitoring the results of telework, in terms of productivity and vehicle emissions reduction. Before the government starts pushing telework, Steinhardt said, it should find a way to monitor whether it actually achieves real productivity and environmental benefits. Although the senators at the hearing seemed convinced that telework had potential, they expressed a desire to see more research.

Working from home has gained in popularity in recent years. But because policies differ among agencies, many workers don't know if they qualify. According to the Office of Personnel Management's 2005 Status of Telework in the Federal Government report, only 19 percent of federal employees who are eligible to telework actually do so.

The Telework Exchange, which promotes the alternate work arrangement, on Monday unveiled an online "gizmo" to help employees determine if they are eligible to take advantage of the benefit.

The new "Online Telework Eligibility Gizmo" asks several basic questions about job responsibilities and work routine. It uses the answers to compute how "telework-friendly" a particular job is.

The tool is the result of six months of research by the Telework Exchange, and features an online form that assigns telework-friendliness "points" based on eligibility criteria common across agencies. For example, a worker who spends most of his day behind a computer, has access to an alternative worksite and can predict his interactions with colleagues will score higher on the Gizmo than someone whose work depends on face-to-face interactions. Employees who handle classified information or who need to be physically present at their job sites typically get very low scores, and in some cases aren't eligible.

The points system breaks workers into three categories. Those who score 26-50 points are "situational" telework-friendly, which means they might be able to work from home on an ad hoc basis. Those who score 51-85 probably qualify for part-time telework, and those who score 86-100 (the maximum) might be able to telework full-time.

Cindy Auten, a general manager at the Exchange, cautioned that the Gizmo is mainly a helpful tool. "We recommend going to an agency telework coordinator [as well]," Auten said. "This is paperwork, so you can show your manager the value of teleworking."

The Exchange recommends using the Commuting Calculators, which have been up on its Web site since 2005, in conjunction with the Gizmo. The calculators use algorithms based on present-month gas prices, rate of vehicle depreciation and average highway tolls to estimate the environmental and financial cost of commuting.

Auten predicted that the Gizmo will ease the burden on managers as well. "A lot of managers are afraid that once they let their employees telework, they won't see them until the annual company picnic," she said. "The Gizmo suggests part-time and ad hoc teleworking as a solution."

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees telework across government, declined to comment on the new tool. A spokeswoman recommended that curious employees check the government's telework Web site. It recommends that workers consult their telework coordinator as the first step in determining eligibility.