Don’t ask GSA how many full-time teleworkers it has – it doesn’t know

The General Services Administration “does not know the number of virtual employees it has.”

That’s the first finding in a new audit of the agency’s telework program performed by the inspector general’s office in Kansas City, Missouri.

While GSA listed 454 employees who either teleworked full time or worked at satellite facilities rather than main offices, the agency admitted its numbers may not be accurate. It has no way of identifying full-time teleworkers, known as “virtual employees,” in its time-and-attendance system. Indeed, the inspector general found 19 employees who teleworked enough to qualify for the list but were not on it. There are likely more employees who fit into that category. The IG did not try to catalog them all. Rather, it focused on finding holes in the agency’s oversight mechanisms.

It found plenty. Some virtual employees had charged the agency for travel expenses that exceeded estimates in their agreements with GSA, the report said. The agency did not regularly review those agreements. Thus, it missed signs that some employees, without approval from agency leaders, had racked up twice as much as they had estimated. In addition, at least one virtual employee claimed transit subsidies even though they never commuted to the office. On the flip side, some virtual employees said the agency’s 2012 clampdown on travel, which followed an embarrassingly lavish Las Vegas conference, had made it harder for them to do their jobs, raising questions about the value of their teleworking arrangements.

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“Travel costs for some virtual employees have significantly exceeded the estimates upon which the virtual work arrangement was approved,” the audit said. “In addition, some virtual employees advised that travel restrictions have affected their ability to perform their duties.”

Auditors also found the agency had recorded the wrong duty station for a third of the virtual employees in its sample. While that type of error could lead to incorrect payments, the report said it happened in only two of the 76 cases examined. GSA overpaid one employee by $7,883. It underpaid the other employee by $4,323.

“GSA has not followed some of its own telework procedures and should strengthen its controls to ensure that all telework complies with applicable policies and procedures,” the report said.

This was not the first time GSA has been criticized for failing to track virtual employees. The agency revised its telework policies in 2012 following media reports that 95 virtual employees had racked up nearly $750,000 in travel costs over the course of nine months. One employee worked out of his home in Honolulu, even though he was based in Kansas City. After that, GSA said top leaders, including Administrator Dan Tangherlini, must approve telework arrangements that cost at least 10 percent more than the cost of having the same employee work at the office.

The inspector general recommended GSA review its agreements with virtual employees, paying more attention to their expense vouchers. GSA also should improve its recordkeeping and the telework training it provides employees. Many employees who work off site have not taken the required courses, the report said.

In a written response, GSA Chief Human Capital Officer Antonia Harris said she accepted the findings. Knowing the audit was coming, she already had begun making changes, she said. About 96 percent of GSA employees now have completed telework training. GSA is vetting a revision of its policies to incorporate auditors’ recommendations. The agency also is correcting errors in its records of virtual employees.

The report is a blow to an agency that has strongly encouraged its employees to telework, even going so far as to renovate its headquarters around the notion that many employees would work frequently from home. Nearly four in five GSA employees teleworked at least once between August 2012 and July 2013, according to the report.

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