Unions to management: stop talking, start doing telework

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Agencies have been debating the merits and challenges of teleworking for more than 20 years. And John Gage is out of patience.

Gage, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), didn’t mince words Wednesday when the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations once again began discussions about how to implement telework across the government.

“I think we ought to concentrate on the impediments. We’ve been seeing the same nonsense for 20 years,” Gage said during the monthly meeting of the council at the Office of Personnel Management in Washington. “I think we should try break through them: security, for instance, on computer files or paper. That is what we need to concentrate on. To put our conversation to this mobile work day, I’m not interested in that. It will not tell us anything.”

Gage and other union officials expressed reservations about narrowing the conversation on mobile working when the government shuts down because of man-made or natural emergencies, such as last winter’s snowstorm in Washington-metro area.

“For telework, the time is here,” Gage said. “All the objections have been worked out. It’s just a matter of giving the agencies a real push to try it and when they do, they’re going to see productivity go up, they will see employee satisfaction go up, and I’m going to continue to try to do whatever I can do on this council to drive a real solid telework policy coming out and not just reducing it to snow days.”

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, joined him in calling for a broader look at telecommuting.

She said if employees don’t telework often, whether once a week or a few times a month, when they need to because of snow or other emergency, they are not prepared or don’t know how to get on their agency’s computer network.

The discussion around teleworking during emergencies was the center of the conversation at the council’s meeting because a working group ran into a roadblock about what they should be researching.

OPM Director John Berry asked the working group, led by Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Manager’s Association, to review how best for employees to become mobile workers.

“We kept coming back to the same place. It’s hard to implement mobile working without having a larger telework policy in place,” Niehaus said. “There was some disagreement over what a mobile worker is. We need input from the council on what to focus on.”

Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the White House will address a broader telework policy in the coming year.

“We are engaged in discussion on telework policy,” he said. “The President is interested opportunities where applicable to increase telework. We are aiming to have some policy sometime in 2011.”

Zients said some work is more conducive than others for telework so the administration must be nuanced in how they approach this in order to come up with the right policy.

“There is a lot going on and it has a lot of traction,” he said. “The mobile workday is most appropriate at the council level. Once we have a policy, the implementation at the council level also would be appropriate.”

Congress mandated agencies let every eligible employee telework in 2000, and reinforced it twice in 2004 as progress was slow. Agencies have their own telework policy, but there is not one governmentwide.

Berry said the working group should focus on collecting data, best practices and existing tools, such as contracts, to help gain a better understanding of what’s out there and what’s working.

“Right now, we are all in different places, but with the right education we can all get to the same place,” Berry said.

Gage, however, doesn’t believe there needs to be more policies or data collection exercises.

“We’re driving in our contracts,” he said. “We have a number of contracts that are up and we are putting it in there. It’s a little different with telework. The burden is not on the union to show it works, it’s on the agency under the Alternative Work Schedules law to show it doesn’t. I think that pushing it hard in contracts is the first thing we have to do.”

Gage said he wants to the council to address the issue to help encourage agencies to implement telework.

Education remains a big challenge, Gage added.

“I think there are a lot of people who don’t know what it is,” he said. “They don’t know all the cuts in it. It’s not like you will never see the employee again. It could be full-time, part-time, it could be episodic. There are so many cuts in this thing that would work. The real thing is it is just a better way to do business. Agencies will see productivity soar and that is the main thing.”

Seth Harris, the Labor Department’s deputy secretary, said collecting data is the right thing to do.

He said the Obama administration is all about evidence-based decisions and there are a lot of challenges around telework that must be considered.

“It certainly will not hurt us to know what we know, to collect the information about past experience to find out what agreements have been made, what barriers have been overcome and then figure out how to move forward from there,” he said.

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