OPM may push telework harder in updated snow policy

Friday - 10/21/2011, 6:28pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Telework could play a greater role in the federal government's snow policy.

The Office of Personnel Management plans to unveil changes to the weather closure policy in early November, but isn't sharing details now. But OPM Director John Berry admitted he would like to have more feds work from home when they can't get to the office.

"Telework is a very effective tool in maintaining the resiliency of government," he said during the recent Federal Labor Management Council meeting in Washington. "To the extent that we can arm our employees to be able to work effectively from alternative locations, that's better service to the taxpayer and allows them to do their jobs and keep the essential functions of government moving regardless of what the weather is or the earthquake situation is, or whatever."

Agencies displayed resiliency during the February 2010 snowstorm that closed federal buildings for four days.

The Department of Health and Human Services delivered money to grant beneficiaries on time because the program support center had a well-established telework program.

"They never missed a beat and during those four days, the program support center processed $8 billion of grants," said HHS assistant secretary for administration Ned Holland at a telework event earlier this week sponsored by the Telework Exchange. "California, parts of which had never seen snow, got its Medicaid grant on time. That's a result of telework."

Current federal policy says agencies should consider requiring employees to telework whenever the weather forces government offices to close. But it also advises agencies to let employees work outside the office routinely so they know exactly what to do when snow strikes.

Some supervisors don't like that idea, however.

"The reason they're nervous about it is because they have the mentality that if my people are in the office, I know they're working and over time people have started to question that premise," said OPM deputy chief of staff Justin Johnson at the telework event.

Just because someone is at a desk doesn't mean they're hard at work, he added.

Even when managers support regular telework programs, employees may push back on snow days. At the Patent and Trademark Office, many examiners telework at least one day a week.

Telework senior advisor Danette Campbell said they know the rules of the road beforehand.

"You understand from the very onset that if there is the threat of inclement weather--right now we've transitioned to a universal laptop--you take the laptop with you and you will be expected to work the next day. That's it," she said.

To make that easier to swallow, Campbell said managers should discuss all the "what-ifs" with employees before they sign the telework agreement that's required by law.

The new inclement weather policy likely is to fall short of mandating telework on snow days. In some cases, it would be subject to collective bargaining.

Regardless, Berry said productivity is secondary to safety.

"We're working with the councils of government, the states, authorized officials who handle emergency issues in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. with the goal of safer, safer, safer, safer," he said.

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