VA comes under fire for telework policy

Thursday - 2/9/2012, 5:30am EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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A Department of Veterans Affairs attorney was counting on the flexibility that telework offers to help him care for his toddler while his active-duty wife was deployed in Afghanistan.

But the Board of Veterans' Appeals has thrown a wrench into his plans by stripping him of his telework privileges.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) (AP photo)

In letters to agency leaders and lawmakers, American Federation of Government Employees Local 17 President Bill Preston accused Board of Veterans' Appeals leader Steve Keller of imposing a cap on the number of attorneys allowed to telework.

The cap "violates the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 by explicitly precluding expanded levels of telework," Preston wrote.

One of the law's sponsors, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to explain the policy.

"There is no excuse for discouraging telework participation, either by slow implementation or disincentives, such as additional work requirements for those who telework," Wolf said in the letter.

He intervened in a similar dispute in 2008, when the Board of Veterans Appeals had required teleworking attorneys to carry greater workloads than non-teleworking colleagues.

The correspondence comes on the heels of new Congressional Research Survey data indicating that VA lags behind other agencies on telework.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which Wolf cosponsored, was supposed to make telework standard practice at agencies wherever possible. It required agencies to develop telework policies, designate a telework coordinator and integrate telework into their emergency operations. It also directed agencies to determine whether employees were eligible to telework.

VA has classified 87 percent of its workforce as ineligible for telework, according to CRS.

John Sepulveda, assistant secretary for human resources and administration, VA (VA photo)

Most of those employees work with patients at hospitals and other health care facilities, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepulveda said at a human resources discussion Tuesday sponsored by Government Executive.

"But in the central office here in Washington, we have a significant percentage whom we believe would be eligible," he said. He faulted reluctant managers for the low numbers.

"We need to do a lot more to educate our managers and supervisors and get them to shift their paradigm around telework," he said. "First and foremost, we need to make sure that the managers are convinced that this is not only a good thing for the employees, but for them; that they can provide the oversight necessary to get the job done; and that telework is an important way for the department to save money."

Agencies need to hold managers accountable through their performance evaluations, said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), another cosponsor of the telework law. "That's how it's going to be taken seriously. Things get done that get measured," he said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) (AP photo)

Sepulveda said he would use his position as the VA's assistant secretary for administration — or "landlord" — to pressure managers in the central office to rethink their telework policies.

The agency has hired 50,000 new workers nationwide since 2009, he said. In Washington, the buildings are bursting at their seams.

"We can't accommodate all of our employees," he said. "So what I'm saying to my colleagues is, we're going to have to work on ways that you can have more of your people telework."

The agency could convert underused offices into "touch-down" space, which teleworking employees could use when they come in, he said.

"I do expect a significant cultural war in these departments with that notion because if there is one thing that people will defend to the end, it's their real estate," he said. "We want to leverage this real estate crisis, if you will, and try to get more teleworking done."

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