US legislators rally for telework adoption

U.S. lawmakers have been making noise on the telework front lately, with legislatures convening to discuss what government agencies and corporations are doing to help the U.S. workforce deal with volatile gas prices.

While gas prices have fallen from US$3-per-gallon highs in September to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels, the national average is still around $2.37 per gallon — up 38 cents over last year, said Jon Porter, a U.S. representative (R-Nev.) and chairman of the Congressional subcommittee on the federal workforce and agency organization. “That increase has caused people to reevaluate their finances and commuting habits, since it is no longer economically feasible for many American families to fill up their vehicles every week.”

Porter made these remarks in a hearing he hosted to discuss what can be done to lessen the effects of high gas prices on employees. Teleworking has received a lot of attention, however neither agencies nor employees have taken advantage of telework programs to the degree that Congress would like, Porter said.

Among the witnesses to testify at the hearing was Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who has spearheaded an effort to require agencies to comply with congressionally mandated telework requirements or risk losing funding. Several agencies remain in violation of 2001 legislation which requires all federal agencies, by the end of this year, to allow every eligible employee who wants to telework, and whose job lends itself to telework, to do so.

“Just last week I was contacted by several constituents with the Bureau of Prisons and the Farm Service Agency who are being denied their right to telework. This kind of attitude by federal agencies must end,” Wolf said.

Wolf inserted a provision in certain 2005 and 2006 spending bills to withhold $5 million from the budgets of the departments of Commerce, Justice and State and NASA, until they meet telecommuting mandates. These agencies are also required to instate a telework coordinator and regularly report on the number of employees telecommuting.

“I hope these provisions will get the telework point across and the agencies, from the top down, will start taking telework seriously,” Wolf testified. “I do not like having to be so heavy-handed and threaten to withhold funding, but if that is what it is going to take to get the point across to federal agency managers, then that is what I will continue to do.”

Danny Davis (D-Il.), ranking member of the subcommittee, acknowledged in his testimony that telecommuting is known for benefits such as reducing traffic congestion and improving employee recruitment and retention. Davis also championed another reason to push federal agencies to implement the infrastructure and work processes necessary to support telecommuting: Emergency preparedness and the threat of terrorism.

Davis introduced legislation that would require the government’s Chief Human Capital Officer Council to conduct a 10-day demonstration project that broadly relies on employees working from alternate work sites, including their homes. “The outcome of the demonstration project would provide agencies and Congress with approaches for gaining flexibility and identifying work processes that should be implemented during an extended emergency,” Davis said in his testimony.

“The number and types of potential emergency interruptions are unknown, and we must be prepared, in advance of an incident, with the work processes and infrastructure needed to reestablish agency operations.”

In addition to public-sector speakers, the hearing drew testimony from the private sector, including Steve Hill, president of Silver State Materials. The Las Vegas concrete supply company purchases roughly 140,000 gallons of fuel each month, and escalating prices have created a big discrepancy between its 2005 budgeted fuel price of $1.75 per gallon and its actual average fuel price $2.41 per gallon.

“If the average price for fuel remains at $2.41 per gallon through the end of 2005, the ultimate additional cost to Silver State Materials, as compared to our budget, will be approximately $2,200,000,” Hill testified. “To put that amount into perspective, that equates to over $11,000 per employee – more than our total cost of providing health care to those same employees.”

Hill advocates, among other measures, federal assistance to help businesses accurately forecast the price of fuel, as well as federal assistance to help accelerate the use of alternative fuels.

Steve O’Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, in his testimony reiterated the idea that Federal agencies needs to accelerate telework adoption to reduce employees’ commuting costs. “The gasoline price hikes of September 2005 drove a real-income salary reduction of $526.25 for the average Federal employee. The increases drove a 42.6 percent increase in America’s commuting costs,” O’Keeffe said.

New research from Telework Exchange shows that federal employees are interested in teleworking, but adoption barriers remain. While the Federal government’s Office of Personnel Management reports that close to 100 percent of agencies have a telework plan, just 56 percent of 3,500 survey respondents are aware their agency has a telework plan. In addition, only 21 percent believe they can readily access that plan.

If all eligible Federal employees were to telework two days per week, the Federal workforce would realize collective savings of $3.3 billion and spare 2.7 million tons of pollutants from being dispersed into the environment each year, Telework Exchange reports.

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