OPM pushes telework during emergency events

Thursday - 12/16/2010, 6:59am EST

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The National Weather Service is predicting a milder winter for the Washington, D.C. metro area, but when bad weather does hit the region, federal employees can expect a clearer set of rules guiding whether the government is open or closed or delayed.

The Office of Personnel Management announced new definitions for their closing policy for weather or other natural or man-made events.

"Our goal is to maintain the government productivity and ensure our workers and the community at large is safe," said OPM Director John Berry during a press briefing Wednesday in Washington.

OPM is doing that by strongly encouraging unscheduled telework.

OPM previously would announce agencies inside the Washington beltway are open with unscheduled leave. Now as part of the new definition, OPM will say agencies are open with unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework for those employees with existing telework agreements.

"If you can't get to the office, you still can work from home, if you have an existing telework agreement," Berry said. "Telework is an essential tool to get work done. A vast majority of federal employees can work remotely so it's just a matter of getting those agreements and technology in place."

OPM latest report from 2008 shows about 103,000 federal employees telework with 64 percent telecommuting at least one day a week. About 300,000 federal employees work in the Washington, D.C. metro area, OPM said.

The new closing policy also affects employees when OPM decides early dismissal is necessary.

Jerry Mikowicz, OPM's senior director for pay and leave, said if the government is closing two hours early, employees with existing telework policies could leave immediately and work the rest of their day from home. Otherwise, he said, employees who wanted to leave early would have to use vacation time.

Additionally, Berry said OPM will change the "closed" term to "closed to the public," to ensure agency emergency employees know they need to report. Employees who are suppose to telework regularly on a day when the government is closed to the public still will have to telework that day.

"The big benefit with unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework is last winter employees had to take eight hours of annual leave, but this year they tell their manager they are teleworking and save that eight hours of leave," Mikowicz said.

During last winter's snow storms, Washington D.C. metro area employees ended up using 40 hours of annual leave because of closures. This winter, teleworkers could save those vacation days.

OPM's new definitions come just after President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act into law last month mandating agencies name a senior official in charge of telework and determine if every employee is eligible to telework.

OPM hopes the new policy gives employees the incentive of not having to use leave during weather or other emergencies to become teleworkers.

"The policy will increase our continuity of operations and enhance the safety of our employees and the nation," Berry said. "It also will provide greater flexibility for employees, make them more productive and have higher morale."

Berry said he asked agency chief human capital officers earlier this week to name at least an interim senior official to be in charge of telework by Dec. 30-as the law requires.

If an employee doesn't have an existing telework agreement, Mikowicz said they should work with their manager immediately to get one put on place. If an employee doesn't have a telework agreement when a snowstorm or other event happens and they can't get to work, they will have to use annual leave.

"It's really important for supervisors and employees to have order as they go about their work," he said. "Employees know what's expected of them and have procedures if the power goes out, and so they don't try to take care of kids or other responsibilities at the same time."

Agencies also couldn't just develop a blanket telework agreement for all eligible employees, Mikowicz added. The law requires telework arrangements on a case-by-case basis for each employee.

Mikowicz added that the new policy may not impact agencies immediately, but over time more and more employees will work with managers to create telework agreements. He said OPM also is working with employee unions to ensure employees can telework not only during emergencies, but also more regularly. This way when an emergency does arise, they are prepared, he said.

Last winter, OPM estimates that the lost productivity cost about $30 million a day.