Telework, the ability of employees to work from locations other than the office, has become a critical part of strategic planning for both agencies seeking to find more efficient means of carrying out their mission, and workers seeking to strike a balance between work and family. The FY 2001 Department of Transportation appropriations law required agencies to establish policies that would allow eligible federal workers to telework to the maximum extent possible. Research has confirmed that effectively managed telework programs strongly support workforce recruitment and retention, managing office space and overhead costs, and addressing environmental and energy concerns. Yet the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent report to Congress on telework found that there was a drop in the number of regular federal teleworkers from 2005 – 2006. Only 7.7% of the federal workforce participates in telework, although more than half of all federal workers currently hold jobs classified as eligible for telework. More telling is the finding by a recent Federal Human Capital Survey that only 22% of all workers were satisfied with their telework situation, while 44% stated they had no basis on which to answer the question, indicating that telework is not an option for close to half of all federal workers.
In the 110th Congress, two bills addressed the issue of telework. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2007 (S. 1000) was reported out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in November 2007. The Telework Improvements Act of 2007 (H.R. 4106) was the subject of a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last spring. Both bills require that all federal workers be considered eligible for telework unless the agency shows they are ineligible. Under current law, federal workers must overcome the presumption that they are ineligible for telework unless the agency determines otherwise. However, while the bills require agencies to appoint a “Telework Managing officer” to report to Congress information on the number of workers involved in telework programs, they lack an enforcement mechanism if agencies fail to meet the telework requirement. The bills also do not address the right of unions to communicate or represent their members in telework situations, or address travel expense issues for workers who live outside the commuting area of their duty station but who are required to report to the office for meetings or other assignments, often at little notice and great expense to the worker.
AFGE members working at agencies with established telework programs such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Citizenship and Immigration Services report that those agencies have self-imposed an arbitrary “cap” on the number of workers allowed to participate in telework. The experiences of these members is reflected by a 2007 study by the Telework Exchange Federal Managers Association study finding that only 35% of federal managers believe their agencies support telework, despite the 2001 Congressional mandate.
AFGE supports extending telework opportunities to all eligible employees. However, we believe it is important that these programs not interfere with the ability of unions to communicate with their members. It is especially important that unions have access to the agency’s e-mail system to broadcast information to the entire unit, including those who telework. In addition, it is crucial that union officials be able to perform representation activities while teleworking. Further, workers should not be forced to forgo the full benefits of union membership solely because they participate in telework programs. Workers who telecommute from outside the commuting area of their duty station should be compensated when they are required to travel to the duty station for meetings with their supervisors. These conditions are necessary to make telework successful and congressional intent a reality for federal workers.
Both bills from the 110th Congress represent good steps in the right direction by removing unnecessary barriers to the ability of federal workers to participate in telework programs. However, given the advances in technology that readily facilitate telework, and the benefits of telework programs that allow the work of the federal government to continue in the event of natural disasters or events such as the predicted flu pandemic and conservation of resources, the bills should take additional steps so that access to telework is a real option for the majority of federal workers. AFGE looks forward to working in support of similar legislation in the 111th Congress.