Survey: Telework still elusive at many agencies

Friday - 2/3/2012, 6:50am EST

This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 3, 2012.

Many agencies are not as gung-ho on telework as President Barack Obama or lawmakers would have it, according to preliminary findings from a survey the Congressional Research Service is conducting.

The Department of Veterans Affairs allows just 12 percent of its employees to telework. At several other agencies, many workers who are eligible to telework do not.

Reps. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) highlighted the CRS' findings in a letter dated Dec. 22 to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

The findings "suggest that some agencies are more focused on telework implementation than others, and that some agencies need to improve telework implementation plans while others are making great progress," the lawmakers wrote.

Sarbanes and Connolly co-sponsored the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 to encourage agencies to let more employees work out of the office.

"I am disappointed that some of these agencies aren't moving more quickly," on implementing the law, Sarbanes said.

CRS' findings raise questions about the 2011 report from OPM and the General Services Administration on telework. The annual report found that about 10 percent of the workforce teleworks and the numbers are increasing-up by more than 11,000 in 2010.

But Sarbanes said both studies point to the same thing: agencies can do more to encourage telework.

In the letter, the lawmakers singled out VA for classifying the vast majority of employees as ineligible to telework.

"Veterans Affairs gets an 'F' as far as I'm concerned," said Connolly, noting that the agency does not track how many employees telework or how much time they spend on it. "There's no way of mapping progress if you don't have a baseline."

The agency defended its policy, however. Eighty-two percent of its workforce is health care employees who are ineligible to telework, agency spokesperson Jo Schuda wrote in an email to Federal News Radio.

"The vast majority of our workforce take care of patients. They have to do that in facilities (or at patients' homes in some home-based care programs)," she said.

While ineligibility is the most obvious barrier to telework, the lawmakers said there were other factors in the agencies' low statistics.

Even people deemed eligible "have to step up and make the shift themselves," Sarbanes said.

"We have to change the mindset of a lot of managers," Connolly said. "The biggest barrier here is a cultural one."

At DHS, 30 percent of employees may telework but less than 1 percent does, according to the survey.

"This abysmal telework performance is inexplicable in light of the large number of DHS office positions, and could prove to be a threat to national security if DHS is unable to implement a continuity of operations plan because its employees are unaccustomed to telework," Sarbanes and Connolly wrote in the letter.

"Telework enhances the ability to perform COOP, but successful COOP is not dependent on a department's ability to telework," a DHS spokesperson said in response.

"We're a law enforcement organization with a mission. We have approximately 56,000 people who are eligible to telework. Last count, we have approximately 10 percent of our eligible workforce teleworking," the official wrote in an email.

Sarbanes and Connolly praised the Department of Agriculture, the Patent and Trademark Office and the General Services Administration for their high telework participation rates.

USDA said in its survey response that telework had allowed it to save $2 million on transit subsidies for fiscal 2012.

GSA recently established an "opt-out" telework policy that allows employees to work outside the office unless their supervisors say otherwise.

PTO widely is considered a leader in telework. Employees spend about 40 percent of all work hours in telework arrangements.

"I'm not surprised that you see a broad range in terms of implementing this," Sarbanes said. "The challenge for us is to get this front and center."

The departments of Transportation, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development failed to answer the survey, Connolly said.

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